Brilliant pairing of music and sand art at Celestial Pipes concert

Cologne-based organist Winfried Bonig.
Cologne-based organist Winfried Bonig.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA



Winfried Bonig (organ), Lawrence Koh (sand artist)

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Saturday

It was either an extremely clever or an astonishingly brave bit of programming that paired a clipped, precise and economically gestured German organist with a flamboyant, dishevelled and extravagant-gestured Singaporean sand artist. Whatever brought the pairing about, it was a brilliant success.

Cologne-based organist Winfried Bonig opened the latest concert in the occasional Victoria Concert Hall (VCH) Organ Series with solo pieces by the two most popular composers for the organ, Bach and Widor. His playing was technically superb and precise, but he rarely ventured into the realms of interpretation, preferring to play what was written and impose little personality on it.

As a result, Bach's majestic finale from the St Matthew Passion felt decidedly un-majestic, while Widor's delicious Allegro Cantabile (from the Fifth Symphony) buried its head in the details. There was, however, undoubted excitement in a very brisk but perfectly articulated account of Widor's ubiquitous Toccata, while Bach's Sicilienne captured the spirit of the dance.

While this approach may be a recipe for dullness, Bonig had one trick up his sleeve.

Unlike any organist I have ever heard play the VCH Klais, he not only knew the sounds he wanted, but revealed them through ingenious use of registration (he needed two assistants to help him in that department) and even more clever use of switching between the keyboards. What these performances lacked in musical impact, they more than made up for in sheer aural enchantment.

Holst's Planets Suite was conceived for vast orchestra. This performance saw it pared down to a single instrument by the late Arthur Wills. And it was the programme planner who had the great idea of adding sand-artist Lawrence Koh to the mix.

Somehow, the idea of the vast eternity of space being recreated by the essential ephemerality of sand art seemed incongruous. But Koh wisely made no attempt either to evoke the solar system nor the astrological beliefs behind Holst's music.

Instead, he created transient images of Roman temples, flowing god-like heroes and, at one point, a magical transformation of a man into an eagle. It fitted the music perfectly and his timing - ending each movement with a flamboyant flourish - was as exquisite as the images he conjured up from his sand box.

Working in sand does, however, result in images which, bathed in a sepia tint, are essentially colourless. And this is where the pairing with Bonig proved truly inspired. His instinctive feel for organ colour embraced Koh's images in a glorious kaleidoscope of aural effects, lingering long in the memory after this truly inspiring concert had finished.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'Brilliant pairing of music and sand art'. Subscribe