Musical child prodigies in Singapore seem like a dime a dozen these days. However they mostly tend to be pianists or violinists. A prodigious flautist is a rarity as wind players need more time for vertical growth and lung capacity to mature. Twelve years of age and having recently completed his PSLE, the cherubic Nikolai Song (whose parents are Russian and Korean) is already a relative veteran in performing.
At six, he won 2nd prize in the Junior category of Flute Festival Singapore. Last year, he was winner of the coveted Amadeus Prize in the Symphony 92.4 FM Young Talents Project, and is the youngest ever member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra. A flautist twice his age would have been proud to have accomplished what he did in this, his debut full-length recital on Thursday at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
First he humbly thanked his parents and teachers before opening the 80-minute long concert with Debussy's Syrinx for unaccompanied flute. There could have been more mystique and mystery in its tonally ambiguous opening, but there was no doubting Song's clarity, the warmth of his sound and ability to project.
Next, contemporary Spanish composer Eduardo Costa's Tempo De Huida provided the opportunity for outright flashy display in its perpetual motion (its title means to "run away"). However Song's superior musicality meant that its slower central section was treated to some truly lyrical playing, the perfect foil for dizzying virtuosity.
In Handel's Sonata In E Minor, his expert pacing and interplay with pianist Beatrice Lin prevented the four-movement work from becoming some didactic exercise. The clearly enthused audience could not help but applaud between all the movements. For Paul Taffanel's Grande Fantasie Sur Mignon, which rehashed popular melodies from Ambroise Thomas's opera Mignon, Song weaved an enthralling yarn like some skilled storyteller before closing effortlessly on a prestissimo high.
After the interval, Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili's Flute Sonata provided further impressive moments, not least in the folk dance-influenced finale that was a show of sheer unbridled joy. Some day, he will successfully tackle the irony-laden and interpretively more demanding Prokofiev Flute Sonata.
Song was joined by present teacher Roberto Alvarez (from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra) in Franz and Karl Doppler's Rigoletto-Fantasie, after Verdi's famous opera. It was a case of what the master can do, the pupil can also equal. The unison opening was totally seamless and when the duo broke into different parts, it was still difficult to separate either of them.
One could only marvel at how the florid variations on Gilda's aria Caro Nome unfolded, and the ensuing Quartet where both flautists alternated playing melody and filigreed accompaniment. As an encore, Song offered Henry Mancini's Pennywhistle Jig, a fun piece popularised by no less than Sir James Galway. It boggles the mind what this natural and phenomenal talent is capable of in 10 years' time.