Barbra Streisand – Timeless

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I first watched this DVD more than a decade ago, and again about five years ago. Last night, I watched it for the third time. It gets better every time, I don’t know why; but I know I’ll watch it again and again in the days to come.

Streisand herself had a part in writing, directing and producing this Timeless: A Live Concert, with the music arranged and directed by Marvin Hamlisch, best-known for The Way We Were, title song recorded by Streisand for the 1973 movie she starred with Robert Redford. (This is one of my favourite songs in the concert, together with Cry Me A River, As Time Goes By, Alfie, Evergreen, On A Clear Day, People, I Believe and Somewhere.)

The concert is set up like a play in two acts, opening with a dramatisation of her first amateur recording session in 1955 and tracing her career from her club days to Broadway and movies. Act two contains a number of Streisand’s duets amidst skits about time and timelessness.

There is an excellent choice of songs in line with the theme: about her forgotten recording (Alfie), about her feelings for her father (who died when she was only 15 months old) with two songs (Papa, Can You Hear Me? and A Piece of Sky – both from Yentl), about how fragile the world is (At The Same Time), about how the world can become a better place (I Believe), about her collaboration with Stephen Sondheim (Send In The Clowns); the duets (Every Time You Hear/ Auld lang Syne with the 13,000-strong audience, and video montage with Judy Garland in Happy Days Are Here Again & Get Help, Barry Gibb in Guilty, Bryan Adams in I Finally Found Someone, Celine Dion in Tell Him, Neil Diamond in You Don’t Send Me Flowers and even Frank Sinatra in I Got A Crush On You).

I find it most heartwarming the clip of Barbra Streisand singing The Carpenters’ Sing with her then 5-year-old son Jason Gould. (Jason is her only son from her first marriage to Elliot Gould; she and her second husband James Brolin (father of American actor Josh Brolin whom I remember from No Country for Old Men and who recently starred in Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War) are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Both Jason and James are in the audience and join her on stage at the finale/New Year (new millennium) countdown. (A side note: Jason recently recorded a duet, How Deep Is The Ocean, with his mother in Partners.) (Other duets – I Got A Crush On You with Frank Sinatra, I Finally Found Someone with Bryan Adams and  Barry Gibb – are also in the Partners album.)

There are many, many more songs – all sung with the clarity, soaring voice and penetrating timbre that is distinctively Barbra Streisand. There is also much footage of old newspaper settings, photographs, albums, movies, concert tours, recording sessions at the studios, TV appearances, her acting and directing in movies.

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Movie Movie on the Wall

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The title of the Beautiful Sunday concert in the Esplanade Presents series this afternoon was very promising. The queue to enter the Concert Hall was extremely long, and I managed to get a seat at Circle 2 after standing in line and being ushered from one door to another for half an hour.

This afternoon’s concert featured the Mus’Art Youth Wind Orchestra, established in 1998 under the wing of the Jurong Green Community Club, bringing music to the people of all ages while providing an avenue for young musicians to experience community music making.

This afternoon’s concert kicked off with a timpani roll and a piece that did not sound familiar to me, with no introduction of any sort, a departure from other Beautiful Sunday concerts over the years. I was not surprised when almost half the house applauded before the end of the long piece because of a perfect cadence. Only much later did I recognise the very popular Can You Read My Mind.  It was only after the piece ended that it was announced that this was the Superman Suite. I did not know The Planet Krypton nor The March of the Villains nor any of the others because I never watched the Superman movies. I’m surprised the audience, which comprised of many young people, did not know the music either. (Otherwise, why would they clap midway through the piece?)

The next piece is a medley from James Bond movies. Other than the 007 Theme, I recognised only Goldfinger and Live and Let Die. Songs like For Your Eyes Only, Skyfall and Writing’s on the Wall were conspicuously missing.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Ryuichi Sakamoto was next. This song, from a 1983 British-Japanese drama film Merry Christmas on the Battlefield, is supposedly a staple of holiday music, but I didn’t recognise it either. However, I really like the piano solo at the opening.

Then came Adventure on Earth by John Williams from the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, written in 1982. It was a popular movie at that time, about the story of a boy befriending an alien stranded on earth.

Beauty and the Beast is the only song I recall with fondness the students in my secondary school music classes. Written by Alan Menken for the Disney animated feature in 1991 and sung by Celine Dion  (“Tale as old as time/ True as it can be…”), it was the only song I taught that received no complaints from anyone (other songs were either too ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not nice’).

The epic soundtrack from Rocky was the last piece for the day. I think I watched this movie when I was an undergrad and I can’t recall any of it, except that I recall disliking Sylvester Stallone’s voice. There was an Alto Saxaphone solo, which was quite good.

As expected, the conductor returned for the anticipated encore – Maona, another Disney animated feature – as this piece was mentioned in the publicity pamphlet. Again, I had neither seen the film nor heard the soundtrack before; and with the audience getting restless (many squealing toddlers, playful children, yakking youths and bored teenagers), it quite dampened my mood though it obviously was supposed to be an energetic and lively piece.

I left the hall quickly, as soon as the doors were open and before the houselights came on, because I foresaw a delayed journey on the road because of the Trump-Kim Summit.

Best of Liu Jia Chang and Liu Wen Zheng

This month’s edition of Coffee Morning and Afternoon Tea is slightly different from the other months’ because there was only one performance, yesterday afternoon, at the Esplanade Concert Hall (instead of the usual venue of Esplanade Recital Studio). The nearly-2000 seats were filled to capacity. There were at least three reasons for this:

one, Liu Jia Chang

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two, Liu Wen Zheng

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and three, the performers (Cai Yi Ren and his wife Huang Gui Xia)

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The moment I stepped into the concert hall, I sensed the atmosphere was also a tad different from the few Coffee Morning and Afternoon Tea concerts held at the Concert Hall that I had attended. It was as though I was attending a full-length concert. There was already a big screen on stage that highlighted the composer, the singer and the day’s performers. (During the concert, members of the audience waved their ‘silver lights’ with their handphones.)

The concert started on the dot, with Cai singing Liu Jia Chang’s Below the Skies to the accompaniment of a five-piece band and a video playing on the screen behind him. Throughout the almost one-and-a-half hours, every song sung was accompanied by some video clip, many of which contain photographs of bygone days that evoked memories. (At one point, Cai had to skip a few phrases because he was choked up with his emotions; but more of that later.)

Some songs by Liu Jia Chang that are familiar favourites include : I Found Myself, Autumn, Where Is My Home, Late Autumn, Moon River, Autumn Poetry, Rainy Sunset, Deep Clouds And Deep Feelings, The Highest Peak, Circle, Warm Autumn, Pavilion Depth, Repay and The Memorable Past.

The one iconic song by Liu Wen Zheng , Promise, was also sung in the style of Yu Tian (a Taiwanese singer with a deep, mellow and husky voice) and Roman Tam (the late flamboyant Hong Kong singer with a very distinctive enunciation), besides Liu’s signature sounds and after Cai’s own take of the song. This is one of the most enjoyable moments of the concert.

When Cai sang Pavilion Depth (a song from a Taiwanese tearjerker inspired by Sung poetry), images of the late Feng Fei Fei flashed through my mind. The lyrics so poignant, I recalled watching her sing this song at her concerts at the Indoor Stadium and being shocked by news of her demise which she made her family keep secret for one whole year, and felt very emotional. When I blinked back my tears, I wondered why the singing was ‘broken’; and I realised that Cai was trying very hard not to break into a sob and had to recollect himself before continuing. It was the most emotionally-charged rendition of a song at the concert yesterday.

Other songs performed include: Childhood (one of my favourites sung by Sylvia Chang), Flowing Water, Never Lonely Again, Duckweed and The Song.

A message from Taiwanese Singer Zhen Su Qin in a video clip, lots and lots of photographs depicting Huang’s musical journey, photo montages of Liu Jia Chang and Liu Wen Zheng, other local singers like Alex Su and Pan Ying, Taiwanese singer Emil Chao, music director and conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra Tsung Yeh and even former Member of Parliament Seng Han Tong, as well as old Singapore (including the National Theatre, the five-foot ways in front of old provision shops, attap houses and old temples, sampans at the Singapore River, the old Robinson Road area, Big Splash, kampongs, the Chinese Garden, the Woodlands cinema, amusements parks, old villages and farms) all add to the feeling that this should have been a three-hour concert.

The Best of Neil Diamond and Creedence Clearwater Revival

The Esplanade Presents series of Coffee Morning and Afternoon Tea is one concert that I attend regularly because it is really good value for money. Today’s sessions feature crooner Peter Chua:

 

I’ve been a fan of Peter Chua since his first attempt at Talentime in 1976. (He also took part in 1978 and 1980.) I never understood why he never won as I had been rooting for him since the early rounds in 1976. I’m very glad he didn’t give up his pursuit of a singing career! By now, I wonder how many people can still remember the winners of those Talentime contests. (I definitely haven’t got a clue.)

I had attended quite a few of his performances at the Esplanade Recital Studio. There was a period (of more than five years) when he didn’t perform at the Coffee Morning and Afternoon Tea concerts and I wondered why. So I asked the Programme Coordinator one day and he said he didn’t even know who Peter Chua was! I was so glad Christopher De Souza took me seriously and invited the singer soon after.

Peter Chua signed on with the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now Mediacorp) for eight years from 1981, but I only caught glimpses of him sporadically because those were extremely hectic years for me. He then performed at hotels and now performs regularly at a restaurant – and I’ve been unable to catch his performances because of the timing.

Each time I watched Peter Chua perform was special, so much so that my mind would keep replaying those concerts, even now. So, this time, I decided to purchase tickets for both shows on the day they were released for sale. (They were always quickly sold out and I failed to secure tickets for the second show by the time I decided I wanted to watch it again.) Am I glad!

I must admit I did not know all the songs performed today, but some favourites like Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue, Love On The Rocks and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain, Bad Moon Rising and Proud Mary were absolute gems. Peter Chua’s passion, energy and aplomb came through with his rich, charming and mesmerizing vocals. He is humorous, entertaining and quick-witted; and the second performance was definitely much better than the first because his vocal chords were fully open.

The guest performers (Veronica Yong performing And I Love You So and Stupid Cupid in the morning, with Peter Chua harmonising;

and Jimmy PresLee

performing Can’t Help Falling In Love in the afternoon) were a pleasant surprise.

Peter Chua earned himself extra accolades (at least from me and I’m sure many others in the audience, if not everyone) singing short excerpts from songs like Blue Suede Shoes, and those by Cliff Richard and The Platters.  Then, of course, there’s the double bonus (encores) of Tom Jones’ Green Green Grass of Home and Englebert Humperdink’s Release Me. I eagerly anticipate the full concerts of Peter Chua singing the songs of these singers soon.

I hope too, that when I next watch Peter Chua perform, his piano accompanist is Tony Ng, appropriately nicknamed “Mr Octopus”.

He plays the piano like ‘riding a horse’, declares Peter Chua, and I concur.  Anyone would be impressed by his glissandos and improvisations. He really displayed his prowess during the solo passages. He obviously has a solid technique. I wish I could play like that!

As with all concerts, it wouldn’t have been such a success without the musicians:

(Left to Right: Ronny the guitarist, Peter the singer, Tony the pianist, Jeffrey the percussionist, Ricky the guitarist and Danny the bassist.

Ronny was Peter’s schoolmate from half a century ago, they have the same Chinese name, they played football together and Ronny inspired and taught Peter how to play the guitar.)

I hope I do not have to wait too long for the said concerts, hopefully within the year.

 

True Colours Festival Concert

I was delighted and excited that Steinway Gallery sent me an email last week, inviting me to the True Colours Concert at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on 24 March 2018. The True Colours Festival presents some of the most talented performing artistes/troupes with disabilities from Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, Singapore.

The audience was greeted with slides showing “HELLO” in the various languages, followed by the first item, a dance by two key Japanese dances with more in the background. What a pleasant surprise it was to see Dr Azariah Tan seated in front of the Steinway grand piano, in preparation for the next item.

My jaw dropped and my eyes went even bigger the moment the opening chords of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2 were struck. This was not the piece I expected to hear as it was publicised on the airwaves that Azariah would perform the Fantasie Impromptu, Op 66 by Frederick Chopin. The Rach prelude was only an appetizer for what was to come next: to my delight, Azariah proceeded to play Burt Bacharach’s Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head seamlessly. This is one of the first pop songs I learnt to play on the piano. The  hearing-impaired virtuoso Azariah was to accompany Tony Dee (talented wheelchair-bound Australian singer) throughout the song.

After Azariah left the stage, Tony Dee continued to sing Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World with a Children’s Choir on stage with him. He then sang the jazz standard All Of Me and an oldie When You’re Smiling to the accompaniment of a blind Japanese violinist. Tony Dee’s performance ended with Raindrops, sans Azariah.

Singapore’s deaf dance crew, Redeafination was up next.

They were joined by Tony Dee and the Extra Ordinary Singers towards the end of the song, Singing in The Rain.

China’s Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei teamed up for a Talent show a few years ago. With only six limbs and a crutch between them, they performed a dance item that was moving and inspiring.

After performances by the Japanese violinist and New Zealand’s wheelchair dancer Rodney Bell (who performed an integrated dance with able-bodied Brydie), an Indian dance group called WeAreOne showcased their agility and prowess in well-executed dance moves that put me to shame.

The next item is a real eye-opener: Drake Music Scotland’s Digital Orchestra.

I have never before witnessed any orchestra that performs exclusively on electronic instruments. The musicians also show that anyone can play music: whether you have no disability, physical disability or learning disability. This group of musicians received the loudest applause up to this point.

Indonesia’s Adrian Anantawan is another inspiring performer.

After his solo performance, Azariah took the stage again. And this time, he played Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. This was what I came for, and I was thoroughly mesmerised, despite being kicked in the knee thrice by the little boy seated next to me and who whined throughout to his grandma that he was bored and wanted to go home. There was more from Azariah when he accompanied Adrian in the next piece. Adrian is one amazing violinist. His performance of J.S.Bach’s Partita No 3 (which demands advanced bowing techniques) is exuberant.

After performances by WheelSmith (wheelchair-bound rapper), Singaporeans Ng Kok Wee and Stephanie Ow (Er-hu), a dance troupe from Chiangmai, Thailand performed on wheelchairs while the international breakdances ILL-Abilities awed the audience with their deft movements and feats.

A South Korean duo (a blind singer and a pianist) performed ABBA’s Thank You for The Music before the visually-impaired Malaysian group Caliph Buskers performed songs including I Believe I Can Fly and Bruno Mars’ Count On Me.

From the Philippines came blind singer Alienette Coldfire. I just found out from the Straits Times that this self-taught vocalist had won third place in the 2016 France’s Got Talent contest. She must be heard live, as any description (elegant, romantic, passionate) cannot adequately convey the power she has to touch you when she sings. Maybe that’s why her stage name is ‘Alienette’. Besides singing solo Jackson 5’s I’ll Be There, she also performed with others Bruno Mars’ Just the Way You Are, Carole King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours.

The finale was the first time I saw Azariah dancing, choreographed for all the musicians! I do not know sign language, but I think at least some of it were incorporated into the dance. Hossan Leong has done a great job as the Creative Director. The scores of people involved in putting the Festival together include those from the United Nations Eductional, Scientific and Cultural Organization and The Nippon Foundation.

 

ACM Lunchtime Concert

One of the three events I attended today is the lunchtime concert at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). This is a collaboration between ACM and YSTCM (Yong Siew Toh Connservatory of Music). Today’s performance is purely piano. The performers are mostly Year 1 piano majors (with one in Year 2 of the Bachelor of Music programme and one in the Young Artist Programme, potentially a YST student in the near future).

Performed on the Bosendorfer baby grand piano (pictured above), the pieces range from Baroque to Romantic to Twentieth century music.

The concert opens with the lively and colourful Sonata in B-flat Major, K 545  by Domenico Scarlatti (Italian, 1685-1757). This is followed by Etude in E Major, opus 72 No 2 by Moritz Moszkowski (German, 1854-1925), a piece often played in piano competitions. In fact, the pianist who played this today could have played this very piece in one of the piano competitions she took part in (and she took part in many, winning some of them). It is definitely a good piece to display the nifty fingerwork and solid technique of the performer.

Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32 by Joseph Haydn (Austrian, 1732-1809) is quite a distinctive work. Right from the first mordent (immaculately executed), I was inspired to rush home, dig out my scores and relearn it, although I know I would never be able to play it as beautifully or with enough dexterity. Perhaps I could fumble through it and imagine the delicious sounds in my head.

I have long thought that compositions by Alexander Scriabin (Russian, 1871-1915) are too challenging for me, but the pianist today played the Two Poems, opus 32 with such airy innocence and dreamy harmonies that I’m tempted to give it a try. However, I held that thought for only a couple of minutes. The music becomes so microscosmic and chromatic that I know it demands a transcendental technique that I do not possess. I would never be able to do justice to the texture and I do not have the required touch and immense power to unleash the musical quality of this piece of work.

The second of Franz Liszt’s (Hungarian, 1811-1886) Three Concert Etudes, S. 144 (La Leggierezza) demands a virtuosic technique beyond my ability. At most, I may be able to pick out the deceptively simple melodic lines in each hand separately. The fingers have to be unusually flexible to play the many frentic, difficult and complex patterns/passages like chromatic arpeggios and rapid leggiero chromatic runs with irregular rhythmic groupings. Hence it was such a pleasure to watch another pianist’s fingers flying up and down the keyboard.

The next item is Frederic Chopin’s (Polish, 1810-1849) Etude in C Major, opus 10 No 1 & Etude in C Minor, opus 10 No 12 (“Revolutionary”). These are exercises that are (especially to this listener) dizzling and both have a hypnotic charm to them. There is a lot of chromaticism (even in the left hand octave melody!) and uninterrupted arpeggios, yet has a chorale type of harmony. The length and repetition of rapid passages is relentless and challenging. There is a lot of tension. I won’t even attempt to play any of these Chopin Etudes when my sole attempt at opus 12 no 3 isn’t even up to scratch.

Claude Debussy’s (French, 1862-1918) L’isle Joyeuse is an extended solo piece which is based on the whole-tone scale, the lydian mode and the diatonic scale. It is an extremely profound piece (the technical hurdles, the different rhythmic patterns, the extensive use of pedalling, the colour and layered textures). Perhaps that is one reason that this piece is the finale of the day. I shall stick to playing pieces like Clair de lune and Arabesques Nos 1 & 2.

SSO Lunchtime Concert

This being the last week of Term 1 in the school calendar, I’m not surprised that a few rows of seats at the Victoria Concert Hall are reserved for a group of primary school pupils and their teachers. I’m surprised that they are given the best seats when perhaps it would have been more prudent to have assigned them seats in the upper foyer where the tiny ones would not only have a good view but also cause less distraction with the unwanted sounds (some loud and discordant, others disturbing and interfering).

Today’s programme should have appealed to everybody, so I really am puzzled why the primary school pupils were not as angelic as some other even younger children in the audience. I wonder if they had been briefed before this ‘learning journey’ on etiquette in the concert hall. However, it did not mar my enjoyment of the concert too much.

Conducted by the affable Joshua Tan, Associate Conductor of the SSO (Singapore Symphony Orchestra), the orchestra opened the concert with Rossini’s (1792-1868) Overture to Il Signor Bruschino. It is lighthearted, energetic and irreverent. The most striking feature is when the second violins tap their music stands in seemingly random patterns which brings delight to the audience. The light humour throughout and the sudden interjections are seamlessly brought together by the masterly gestures and directions of Tan. The thrilling crescendos bring the piece to an exhilarating close.

Next on the programme is the iconic 1st Movement from Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Symphony No 5. One of the best-known compositions in classical music, the opening is full of vigour and electrifying energy. This familiar four-note rhythmic figure (da-da-da-DUM; da-da-da-DUM) is ever present throughout the phrases and paragraphs (in different guises, in both major and minor keys) and is actually very complex and multi-layered. At one point, the music suddenly crashes and stops, only to wind up again and go off in another direction.

Erik Satie’s (1866-1925) Gymnopedies Nos 1 & 3 are known staples for all piano students. I paricularly like No 1, because it’s seemingly simple (but is not), gentle and dreamy. The opening chords embed themselves in the head and the music becomes muddy, complex and even spooky later on. Today’s performance is orchestrated by Claude Debussy (French composer, 1862-1918), an older contemporary and a friend. Listening to this is like “we are moving slowly around a piece of sculpture and examining it from a different point of view.” (Constant Lambert, British composer, 1905-1951)

Another iconic classical piece of music is the great Symphony No 40 by Mozart (1756-1791. It is one of three symphonies (nos 39, 40 & 41) Mozart wrote within three months when he was having significant financial difficulties. This movement starts darkly, with breathless energy, played by the lower strings with divided violas. It is catchy and the listener is transported to a world of anguished harmonies and heightened tension, with a contrasting theme providing respite. Regrettably, someone decided to make it one of the most annoying mobile ringtones around, after the Taiwanese girl band S.H.E. came up with a song called “Don’t Wanna Grow Up” in 2005.

Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is a noted pianist and composer of classical music, but is better known for his Hollywood scores (Captain Blood in 1935, Juarez in 1939, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939, The Sea Hawk in 1940, The Sea Wolf in 1941, King’s Row in 1942; both Anthony Adverse, 1936, and The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, won Oscars). Today’s performance of Theme and Variarions Op 42 is written on a commission for American school orchestras. It has a simple theme – played “in the manner of an Irish folk tune” – and is followed by a set of seven variations. This is the last of his works.

The finale for the day is Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) Waltz from Divertimento, chosen because it helps promote the SSO concert next month (West Side Story). The stars here are the string players, especially the cellists and violinists. It is exuberant with reminiscences and tributes. The melodic basis is the two-note “germ” B-C (representing Boston Centenary).

Attending this concert is definitely one of the best ways to enjoy my lunchtime, even at the expense of eating a proper lunch.