Local-born pianist thrills in comeback

REVIEW / CONCERT

SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF MUSIC GALA CONCERT

Living Room, The Arts House Thursday

Music lovers with long memories might remember Singapore-born pianist Koh Poh-Lin who was active here during the 1980s before moving to Vancouver, Canada, where she is now based.

The student of the late pianist Ong Lip Tat and later the legendary pedagogue Lee Kum Sing was a semi-finalist at the 1989 Rolex Asia Piano Competition.

Among her contemporaries are Singaporean pianists Shane Thio, Christina Tan, Lena Ching and Victor Khor.

She marked her long-awaited return to the local stage with a performance of Chopin's First Piano Concerto in a chamber version accompanied by a string quartet and double bass.

Formed by members of the Singapore International Festival of Music (Sifom) Orchestra, the string group that partnered Koh was unfortunately ragged and under- rehearsed.

The martial opening tutti was hesitant and out of sorts, with intonation being mostly a hit-and-miss affair. It seemed like an eternity before Koh's imposing entry of big octaves and chords broke the spell of mediocrity.

The hall's Shigeru Kawai grand piano was not in the best shape, but she made music with a sensitive and limpid touch and the music's over-arching cantabile came through winningly.

Where the adrenaline level was upped in the first movement's development section, she matched that with some of the concerto's more thrilling moments.

With the strings scrambling to keep up, the collegial qualities that characterised chamber music at its finest were intermittent at best. While the ensemble seemed to gel at times, these were unfortunately not sustained for longer stretches.

The performance's best minutes came in the slow central movement, where its title Romanze was taken at face value. At a more relaxed pace, all six players luxuriated in the music's warm glow and seamless lyricism.

The finale's Rondo might be described as rough and ready - it would have benefited from more rehearsal time. Other than a short section where a variation of the dance-like theme was missed out or not observed, Koh's pianism was steadfast, the unifying factor that kept the ensemble together through to the concerto's romping close.

Would a solo recital have been a better choice to make one's comeback in front of a hometown audience? A standing ovation accorded by a full-house might encourage her to do just that in next year's edition of the festival, which celebrates local talent.

On the same platform this evening were three younger Singaporean musicians. Sixteen-year- old violinist Amanda Chia gave a confident reading of Charles de Beriot's Violin Concerto No. 9, accompanied by pianist Iryna Vokhmianina. Sisters Claris and Crystal Hwang put the polish on a Haydn sonata movement and Debussy's First Arabesque, respectively.

Given time, and if they put in hard work, they might one day emulate the achievements of Koh Poh-Lin.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Local-born pianist thrills in comeback'. Print Edition | Subscribe