Soulful Sunday

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(Photo credits: Albert Chan / May Ling

L to R: Jerome Lee, Mrs Pauline Huang, Yu Teik Lee)

Presented by Sifon Music Productions (solely owned by veteran Xinyao singer-songwriter Huang Hongmo), Soulful Sunday is a shared musical journey towards pop piano improvisation. Today’s speakers/trainers are Yu Teik Lee and Jerome Lee, ardent and enthusiastic Pianovers. (I found out about this event via a Facebook post by another passionate member, Goh Zensen.)

This sharing session comes about because of the collaboration between Sifon and Zensen. The event is called Soulful because the way Teik Lee and Jerome play is full of soul and passion, with a lot of improvisation and very impressive, and helps the listener understand a different style of playing music.

The first to speak is Teik Lee. He started off by recounting how he discovered his style of music, his learning journey, his insight into piano playing, his favourite songs and genres of songs, how to play by ear and improvisation. (Richard Clayderman is the main motivator.) He also shared how his playing has evolved from a classical background (even quoting Beethoven’s Sonata Op 101) to sentimental pop ballads. It is very enriching to explore and experiment with the different ways of playing the piano. He used Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to demonstrate how a simple melody like this is akin to be given a blank canvas for add-ons by putting in the chords and embellishments. My deepest impression is when he declared that “anyone who can sing can play by ear, even someone without perfect pitch”. (Does this imply that someone who can’t sing properly will not be able to play by ear? I always barely passed my Aural tests, and I need hearing aids; is that why I’m unable to play by ear?) He further demonstrated with a Malay song (Lenggang Kangkong), a Chinese song (The Moon Represents My Heart) and Moon River (which he also sang). He also mentioned that it is not easy to coordinate singing and playing (which I didn’t really comprehend). His talk ended with a quote from Beethoven: To play a wrong note is insignificant, but to play without passion is inexcusable.

The next speaker is Jerome, who also began by sharing how far he has come from a classical background to explore across multiple music genres over three decades. He also spoke at length about reharmonising techniques through interaction, simplification and improvisation. One thing I remember is: The more you learn, the more informed you are because all teachers teach differently. I have definitely not come across a teacher like him. Nevertheless, he got me curious enough to want to try to transpose (pop) songs into just C+, G+ or F+ (or their relative minor keys : Am, Em & Dm), as most songs can be played with just these 6 chords. (But I’m thinking it’ll be easier to play in the original key according to the score.) He demonstrated using eight songs written by Singaporeans such as Eric Moo, Dr Liang Wern Fook and Dick Lee. (Now I’m inspired to dig up my score for these songs and play them again.) His segment is twice as long as Teik Lee’s because it is more technical (and therefore more ‘complicated’). One new term I learned is that an anacrusis is also called a Single Note Glide.

It has been a refreshing and enriching session. I look forward to attending more such sessions but I doubt I would make the ‘switch’ from my classical training easily. (After all, it was much much more difficult for me to get started on the piano compared to these two gentlemen. And I had a very different career path which would not have allowed me the ‘luxuries’ that they had.)

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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.

Money

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If I had a lot of money,

The first thing I would buy

Is the Steinway Spirio

To replace my Steinway baby grand.

If I had a lot of money,

I don’t have to worry

About inflation and

The escalating cost of living.

But I am content as it is,

And not have to worry

About housing, my meals

And basic necessities of life.

Some things I have, money can’t buy –

Like health and friendship,

Love and relationship,

And much more, for which I’m so grateful.

Hanna

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I picked this movie because I recognised the name Saoirse Ronan from Movie : Brooklyn but coudln’t match the name with face on the cover of Hanna. And her co-stars Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are also a draw.

This is an action-packed suspense-thriller that had me close my eyes at a couple of scenes. Hanna Heller (Ronan) is a 16-year-old girl raised and trained in total isolation by her father Erik (Bana), an ex-CIA agent, in the wilds of Finland to be a skilled assassin. Sent by her father on a mission across Europe, Hanna is tracked by a corrupt and ruthless agent Marissa Wiegler (Blanchett) with secrets of her own.

Apart from the blood and gore in some scenes (like a very long snake in the desert, the killing of a man by plunging a pen into his ear), I couldn’t peel my eyes and ears from the movie. I was as fascinated as Hanna by the women singing local folk tunes as they did their washing by the river. I enjoyed as much as Hanna when the family she hitched a ride from sang songs during the drive in their caravan. I loved how music is worked into the plot: from the time when Erik read to Hanna the definition of music – a combination of sounds, with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion. This quote would be repeated in a later scene as well as in the end credits. Erik had deprived Hanna of music, though he told her that her mother was a singer partial to Tchaikovsky. Hanna was to discover during her journey (that brought her to Germany, Morocco, Berlin, Bavaria, Hamburg and New York) the stunning truth surrounding her birth. It is also then that the audience understands what makes Hanna a girl with a reduced capacity for fear, for pity, with great muscle strength, heightened senses for anything that makes the perfect soldier.

Other than the original score for the soundtrack, the use of Edvard Grieg’s incidental piece In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt Suite brings out the idea of  “to thine own self be true” as it is in a minor key and the different groups of orchestral instruments “collide” with one another as the music increases in tempo and becomes increasingly loud and frenetic.

Besides the soundtrack, the visuals are stunning. The cinematography is simply beautiful – extremes from cold in Finland to heat in Morocco, the wooded forest to the dry, desolate desert, from a cabin covered by snow out in the middle of a Finnish forest to the rocky and seemingly endless desert floor, and from several sunsets, or a chase through a junkyard, and shots including those in big cities to playgrounds and parks.

I am more impressed by Ronan’s turn here as Hanna than Bana or Blanchett in their roles. All their performances are good and solid, but Ronan must have worked extremely hard to come across as convincingly invincible and pathetically vulnerable at the same time (owing to her complete inexperience of the world). She is a natural and unique young actress.

I’m not a fan of cruelty and violence but this movie is unexpectedly enjoyable.

Steve Jobs

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This 2015 biographical drama starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet is the one I had been wanting to watch but didn’t (because I think it was shown on Netflix instead of the cinemas), and I had picked up the documentary Steve Jobs: One Last Thing instead.

The great performances of Fassbender (as Steve Jobs), Winslet (as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ right-hand woman) and many others make the two-hour movie hugely enjoyable. Others like Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, Katherine Waterson as Chrisann Brennan, and Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Solo and Perla Haney-Jardine (as Lisa Brennan at 5, 13 and 19 respectively) also put up creditable performances.

Steve Jobs is the iconic name and face of Apple Computers, a company he co-founded. He always wants to be in control, because he was given up for adoption. The control places him at odds with people around him, which he doesn’t care as long as he gets what he wants at the end. The significant people in his life are also featured.

The other thing that impressed me is the selection of music: from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (two versions, about clouds, love and life) to songs by folk singer Joan Baez to a scene out of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night to Bob Dylan’s Times They Are A-Changing, Rainy Day Women, Shelter From The Storm, Meet Me In The Morning and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Other aspects of music are also used in the plot to enhance the visuals. Mentioned are world-renown conductor Seiji Ozawa and his godly artfulness and nuance, the orchestra pit for the San Francisco Opera, musicians and even the metronome.

This movie is a different kind of journey from Steve Job: One Last Thing. The latter is a documentary, whereas this is more subjective. It shows Jobs as a controversial person and the conflicts he faced with other people, particularly Hoffman, Sculley, Wozniak, Chrisann and Lisa. The character is portrayed as unlikeable yet compelling at the same time. As one character in the movie asked, why did Jobs want people to dislike him? This is a story about people who try to persuade people of things.

What Happened That Night

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Sheila O’Flanagan is an author I discovered a few years ago, and I’ve loved every one of the 20 books that I’ve read. What Happened That Night is her latest (25th) and I think it is by far the best.

The premise is that Every choice we make has consequences. The main characters are Lola Fitzpatrick, her daughter Bey and Bey’s father Philip Warren (whose marriage proposal was rejected by Lola). One main thread is the mother-daughter relationship and the impact the decision a mother makes has on her daughter’s life. Lola and Bey are strong and independent.They are the glue that holds things together. The other thread is about the jewellery industry, which is fascinating: how designers approach their work and what influence their designs, and the relationship between the designer and the person who sources the gems.

I was totally absorbed from the Prologue, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to read about Lola (then), The Theft (nine years later), The Raid (ten years later), Haute Joaillerie (four years later), Bijou (two years later) and Ice Queen (now). I liked how each chapter begins with a definition of a gemstone (or term associated with jewellery), and how the qualities are expounded in the plot. People are like gemstones. The flawless ones are exceptional. Nobody in the world is flawless. It’s impossible to be perfect. Over 38 chapters, I learnt about 38 different gemstones; for example, Diamond: a transparent, extremely hard, precious stone is at the start of Chapter 1 where Lola is introduced, Pearl: a hard, lustrous stone formed within the shell of a pearl oyster delves deeper into Lola’s personality, Sapphire: a transparent gemstone, usually blue, second only to diamond for hardness is Bey’s favourite stone, Clarity: one of the major factors in grading and valuing gemstones tells of the transparency of the various goings-on in the plot, Onyx: abandoned or layered chalcedony, usually black reflects how Bey feels, Aquamarine: a precious light blue or green-blue gemstone is indicative of Bey and her new venture, Alexandrite: a rare gemstone that changes from green to red depending on the light is apt description for many of the characters particularly Philip’s mother Adele, who plays a rather important role in the plot.

A thoroughly enjoyable read, this novel is about dreams, disappointments, secrets, self-doubt, love and families. The sense of happiness, sadness and joy come through the slew of characters seamlessly. The plot is well-crafted, and each character very different and profound. It is written in a refreshing and charming way. I can’t wait for the next Sheila O’Flanagan book.

Piano Masterclass with Clarence Lee

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I was thrilled when a friend informed me of an impending piano masterclass with Clarence Lee, whom I’ve always thought of as Singapore’s answer to Lang Lang. (He was the stand in for the international superstar pianist throughout the rehearsals for the Sing50 concert to celebrate Singapore’s 50th National Day in 2015. It must have been one of the many memorable moments for him as a pianist; one other being the commencement in 2012 where he graduated with First Class Honours and was awarded the coveted Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal. He was also the class valedictorian and was asked to perform with his academic dress on. But I digress.)

The Masterclass (held yesterday afternoon) was organised by MW Fine Arts Academy, and the husband-and-wife (Vincent Chong and Khong Shok Meng) team was very efficient in answering my queries about my attendance as an observer. Shok Meng also printed for everyone an almost-complete set of scores for the day’s repertoire. (I guess, due to some copyright laws and her teaching commitment, she couldn’t be expected to print the complete set. And I’ve never attended any masterclass where any score was provided; I always had to bring my own and sometimes had to do without.) Again, I digress.

The day’s repertoire include Liebestraum No 3 in A flat by Liszt, Selling Sundry Goods by Peixun Chen, Cat and the Mouse by Aaron Copland, Ballade No 4 by Chopin, The Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel and Jardins sous la pluie by Debussy. Some of the points highlighted were:

  • There is so much adrenaline before a performance, there is a need to calm down and focus, be comfortable and relaxed before starting to play;
  • Practise slowly first (remember that scores are an added security, not an added distraction); ;
  • Practise without the pedal first (Finger pedaling is more important than the foot);
  • Think of the piano as an orchestra to know the best way to make the different levels and textures;
  • Think like a computer software (hence have to know a lot of things, like the range of the instrument and the room);
  • Know the structure (think of the whole piece like chapters with a climax, where “the floodgates open” at “a point of no return”);
  • Have to convince the audience to believe in what you want to say, so need to turn up the energy and be less humble; (Here, Lee demonstrates and talks about how Lang Lang is a very good pianist and is so successful because he always gives 300% in his performances, notwithstanding the exaggerated articulations. The performer has to exaggerate because the audience always feels less. The piano is like a filter for emotions, so what comes out is only 75% – just listen to any recording of Lang Lang. I may add that anyone who disagrees had better play the piano better than Lang Lang!)
  • Have to be very sensitive from the first note to the last note of the piece; any change (even subtle ones) in harmony or register should be reflected through the sound;
  • There’s no one method that works with everyone; each must adapt to suit his style and needs;
  • Scales and arpeggios are very important, like vocabulary in a language; (I totally agree! I used to warm-up by playing scales and arpeggios for 45 minutes before playing my pieces and got all sorts of weird looks and comments from friends; was I glad to hear that Lee used to warm up by playing scales and arpeggios for an hour!)
  • The difference between a good pianist and a very good pianist is that some don’t do enough or are not sensitive enough;
  • The secret is what you hear in your head;
  • A pianist is a magician who creates the illusion that the sound is growing;
  • The piano is very easy to learn but very difficult to master; (This I can’t agree more!)
  • The ear is a very personal space to listen to the various levels of dynamics;
  • A good pianist should do everything with sound; a performer tries to make the audience feel;
  • Focus on the foundation, not the architecture;
  • Make sure everything is well pronounced;
  • Set realistic goals (do it painfully slow at first; trying to reach the top too quickly would result in disappointment and depression);
  • Tempo choice : think like a singer! (“If you can’t sing it, then don’t play so fast.”)

I gained a lot more insight than the twenty points listed above. What I like best is that “When you are the pianist, do the way you like it. Some may like it, some may not. But the pianist can go home feeling good. Don’t try to please people. Be convincing. Be what you like; put your personality into the music.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the masterclass, including all the “tricks” and “secrets” shared. In fact, Lee mentioned that he may one day write a book along the lines of ‘100 Tricks on How to be a Good Pianist’. I can’t wait!