Concert review: The dragon lady of toy piano and the teenage violin virtuoso

Pianist Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep at The Esplanade's Studios Season.
Pianist Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep at The Esplanade's Studios Season.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN/COURTESY OF ESPLANADE, THEATRES BY THE BAY

Concert

DRAGON LADIES DON'T WEEP

Margaret Leng Tan

The Studios - Esplanade

Esplanade Theatre Studio, last Thursday (April 1)

QUINTESSENTIALLY ENGLISH

re:Sound with Chloe Chua

Victoria Concert Hall, last Friday (April 2)

If a history of classical music in Singapore were written, the names of two women would stand out.

Avant-garde pianist and Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan, 75, and prodigious violinist Chloe Chua, 14, stand at polar ends of the age divide. But both shone in concerts coincidentally held on consecutive evenings.

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep was Tan's maiden foray into theatre, a 75-minute summation of her artistic achievements directed by Tamara Saulwick, with dramaturgy by Kok Heng Leun.

Although one might already cite her takes on the likes of avant-garde American composers John Cage and George Crumb as musical drama of some kind, this piece gave further voice to her visions, writings and musings.

Tan performed on prepared piano (a concert grand stuffed with various objects between strings), toy piano, melodica (a mouth organ with a keyboard) and an assortment of children's toys.

The eclectic and often minimalist music by Australian composer Erik Griswold was merely a vehicle for her life's narrative.

She moved through memories from childhood - accompanied by the Cantonese song The Moon Is Bright - reminiscences of her late mother and an obsession with counting numbers.

Also looming large were her interactions with the maverick Cage, whose music she made her passion and portal to universal renown and notoriety. She tickled with candid anecdotes of her sheer persistence to gain the composer's attention.

The work's message was "75 years and still counting", promising that audiences have not seen the last of this unique and compelling artist.

A day later, sought-after soloist Chloe Chua's second appearance with chamber outfit re:Sound yielded yet another stunner.

In Vaughan Williams' A Lark Ascending, with its ethereal solo violin part so thoroughly exposed as to be treacherous, she delivered with lyrical beauty, perfect intonation and total composure throughout.

Her singing tone filled the hall, rising easily above the discreet orchestral accompaniment. When the throng fell silent for long stretches, it was all ears on her alone - and what unmitigated pleasure it was.

So natural and mesmerising was the display that she would be the envy of artists double or triple her age.


Violinist Chloe Chua at re:Sound Collective concert Quintessentially English on April 2, 2021. PHOTO: RESOUND COLLECTIVE

Elgar's Serenade For Strings opened the concert, led by violinist Chan Yoong Han serving as concertmaster.

Here was another sumptuous performance, with just 15 string players creating a homogeneous sonority of warmth and fullness all through its three movements. Particularly beautiful was the slow movement which tugged at the heartstrings.

Selections from German-born but naturalised Briton George Frideric Handel's popular Water Music Suites completed the evening's fare.

Here re:Sound strived for authenticity with the use of a pair of natural horns to achieve a festive and celebratory effect.

Despite spots of wayward intonation, the movements cohered well and the final result was a lively romp.