Beauty amid chaos



Nicholas Loh & Shane Thio, pianos

Sng Yiang Shan & Eugene Toh, percussion, Lee Foundation Theatre, Thursday

The piano is a percussion instrument because it makes music when metal wires are struck by hammers. It is, in fact, the most highly evolved of all percussion instruments as it can be made to sing or sound like an orchestra.

This innovative and very engaging concert of 20th-century music for piano and percussion proved that, and more.

The first half presented American avant-garde composer George Crumb's Music For A Summer Evening (1974), also known as Makrokosmos III, a reference to Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos for piano. Its five movements showcased the pianos - amplified and with their lids removed - played in every conceivable manner possible alongside a battery of percussion.

Crumb's enduring trademark was getting the pianists to play directly on the piano's strings, either by plucking, scraping, striking or "preparing" with foreign objects, thus not limiting its scope to 88 depressed keys.

The effect was at once mystical and ethereal with an array of tinkling, metallic bell sounds, alternating with loud and violent crashes when the score demanded it. At certain points, pianist Nicholas Loh would drop a crotale (a small metal cymbal) heavily onto the strings, or slide a stick over the gourd-like guiro while letting its sound bounce off the strings.

Percussionists Sng Yiang Shan and Eugene Toh were themselves busy in their "kitchen" department - shaking a large metal sheet, rattling a flexatone, sliding bows on cymbals - and with non-percussive activities such as vocalising, playing a recorder and blowing on slide whistles.

All this seems to suggest a work of anarchic disorder and total chaos, but the reality was something else. Well-structured and economically choreographed, there were many instances of transcending beauty eloquently expressed, including Messiaen-like birdcalls, and in the final movement, Music Of The Starry Night, a Bachian chorale that echoed through to the work's serene and quiet end.

The second half was devoted to Bartok's masterpiece Sonata For Two Pianos & Percussion (1937), considered the "grandfather" of all piano-percussion works. Its three movements seemed comparatively straightforward and even conservative, but the sheer density of themes and textures more than made up for this.

Its mysterious opening was well-judged with Toh's timpani slide and low piano octaves from Shane Thio, one of two pianists in its Singapore premiere more than 20 years ago. The pace gathered and sonorities piled up in counterpoint for the first movement's virile main theme.

Despite the music's percussiveness that led up to the climactic syncopated fugue, there was no shaking off the notion of Bachian influence.

Loud applause and cheers for the performers' fastidious efforts greeted the conclusion of the Hungarian folk dance-influenced finale, but credit also goes to the symmetry of excellent programming by bringing Bartok and Crumb together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Beauty amid chaos'. Print Edition | Subscribe