Charmed by Singapore composers



Alan Choo - violin; Lin Hengyue - piano; Chen Zhangyi, Chew Jun An, Wynne Fung, Phang Kok Jun, Tan Yuting - composers

Esplanade Recital Studio


There may not be a meaningful answer to the question "What is Singapore music" until the country's 60th or 75th Jubilee celebrations, but going by what was heard this evening, the next generation of composers and musicians are well along their journeys of defining what new music in Singapore will be.

The seven friends driving this concert share bonds of having studied at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and later at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. In this concert, violinist Alan Choo and pianist Lin Hengyue performed nine works by the five composers, all inspired in some way by their life experiences in Singapore.

Chen Zhangyi, who lectures at the conservatory, is the most established and has the most experience among the composers, a fact that shone through his music. His charming Sandcastles for piano and violin, premiered by Choo at the Singapore Embassy in Washington, DC earlier this year, reflects on his memories growing up on the east coast of Singapore and building sandcastles real and imaginary.

This was followed by Ground, an arrangement for solo piano from his chamber opera Window Shopping, a play on the technique of ground bass (the use of a repeating bass pattern) and the banality of feet pounding the floors of shopping centres. Lin captured the sense of meandering beautifully, right up to a flurrying finale, presumably marking a purchase.

Phang Kok Jun's Hustle Bustle for solo violin was a triumph. He described the chaos of New York's Times Square as the initial impetus for the work, but the strains were typically Eastern, reminiscent of Indian raga, with more than a hint of jazz influence. Choo's firebrand delivery of this very challenging work made it the outstanding piece of the evening. One hopes that it finds its way into the repertoire of more violinists seeking to show off their technical prowess and their Asian sensibilities.

As a package, Phang's Wind Chimes for solo piano was less complete, with the music and Lin's playing becoming overblown in parts. Nonetheless, the two works by the composer, who is in the midst of his master's programme at Peabody, show a purity of form and depth in execution that should carry him far.

Wynne Fung's In A Quiet Gray for piano and violin closed the first half. Contemplative and evocative, her work showed great maturity in pairing the instruments, giving the musicians the greatest freedom to sing together.

The second half featured composers who are still pursuing their undergraduate degrees. Chew Jun An and Tan Yuting's works all show a sound foundation in classical techniques blended with their individual styles, with Chew's roots in Chinese orchestral music evident. Tan's Water Fantasy for violin and electronic music was an admirable effort to combine live performance with live and recorded samples. Having grown up listening to the lapping waves on Changi Beach during vacations, the samples used by Tan detracted rather than added to the experience.

Violinist Choo and pianist Lin were tireless and fully worthy ambassadors for the music of these five very talented composers. Choo in particular seemed to lap up all the technical challenges thrown to him, and his playing had wit and romance to spare.

The encore, Wynne's Theme by Chen, was delivered with an extra twist - the composer knelt and proposed to his co-composer, and she accepted his marriage proposal. This new generation of composers is not lacking in passion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Charmed by Singapore composers'. Print Edition | Subscribe