'Speaking pianist' toots horn

Pianist Nicholas Loh (left) and cellist Loke Hoe Kit.
Pianist Nicholas Loh (left) and cellist Loke Hoe Kit. PHOTO: 20TH CENTURY CLASSICS

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Nicholas Loh, Piano Recital

ESPLANADE RECITAL STUDIO/Sunday

After returning from his post- graduate musical studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, Singapore pianist Nicholas Loh has established himself as a fervent exponent of new music.

His first solo recital since 2009 (when he performed works by John Sharpley, Frederic Rzewski and Nikolai Kapustin) was cutting edge and controversial to boot.

There was an underlying theme of protest in his latest offering, which opened with Latvian composer Peteris Vasks' Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Its Mozartian title belied the music's wide dynamic range, with spectral harmonies and Debussyan chords, progressing to rapid figurations, repeated notes and sonorous bell sounds.

Dispelling the idea of night as a haven of solace, this was more of a nightmarish scenario which ended with Loh plucking the lowest strings of the Yamaha grand piano.

The world premiere of Singaporean composer Bertram Wee's A Little Book Of Lies marked a new chapter in local piano writing.

Although the idiom through its five movements was atonal, the violence portrayed was easily recognisable. The work was an indictment against dogmatism and extremism, the sort that resulted in the tragedies of 911, the Bali bombings and Charlie Hebdo shootings.

Loh emerged with sawn-off gloves and uncovered socks to perform. The audience got the message that intolerance comes via slurs, murmurs and innuendos rather than fire and brimstone sermons.

The exception was the central movement, The Comedy Of Ignorance, with the keyboard assaulted by forearm clusters, sweeping glissandi and a stamp from the foot to complete the final insult. Wee, who studies at London's Royal College of Music, is a name to watch.

The final work was the American Rzewski's De Profundis, a 35-minute-long melodrama that required a "speaking pianist" to recite, sing, pummel himself and toot on a bicycle horn, among other things.

Its text, which Loh gave a most lucid and nuanced reading, was taken from letters by British playwright Oscar Wilde when he was incarcerated in Reading Gaol for the crime of homosexuality. Here was not a self-pitying or crusading rant, but a sobering statement of utter hopelessness, despair and ultimately sorrow, a word that appears on multiple occasions.

Loh is a natural storyteller, while playing, acting and singing (which was very much in tune). He left the small but very engaged audience with little doubt about his abilities and sympathies.

This recital was one small but important step taken in the right direction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline ''Speaking pianist' toots horn'. Print Edition | Subscribe