Viola takes centre stage with agility

If there is one person in Singapore who has championed the cause of the viola more than any other, it would be Jeremy Chiew.

His sheer single-mindedness has resulted in an unprecedented series of concerts edging the seemingly unglamorous instrument - often the butt of musicians' jokes - firmly into the limelight.

His latest viola showcase, lasting an hour without intermission, was filled with rarities. Under dim lighting, he opened with an Etude by Italian composer Bartolomeo Campagnoli, cast in the form of theme and variations.

Exhibiting a wide and sonorous tone with much agility to match, he later explained that this was his encore for the concert.

A soft-spoken performer with an understated and droll sense of humour, it was not altogether clear whether he was playing a joke on the audience or not. Nonetheless, the hall lighting came on for two sets of songs with obliggato viola parts.

First was English composer Benjamin Dale's lovely setting of Come Away, Death from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.



    Jeremy Chiew (Viola) et al

    Esplanade Recital Studio/Last Saturday

Pondering on the melancholic course of true love was tenor Adrian Poon, of Sing Song Club fame, who emoted longingly above Muse Ye's piano accompaniment. Poon and Chiew alternated their parts and never the twain did their plaints meet.

More integrated were voice and viola in Adolf Busch's Three Songs Op. 3a, about more love, sadness and solitude, sung in German. Viola filled in the parts where the voice fell silent, besides providing counterpoint and counter-melodies in these retiring and probing numbers.

The Busch songs were sandwiched by two solo Fantasias by Georg Philipp Telemann, originally for violin, performed on baroque viola by Taiwanese violist Amy Hsu. She gave a short speech on her period instrument, which was smaller than its modern counterpoint, had neither chin nor shoulder rests, and utilised gut instead of metallic strings.

The latter, she explained, was the reason such instruments were so difficult to tune.

The two contrasted Fantasias, in B flat minor and G major, provided ample display on the techniques used for these early pieces. The sound was mellower and more intimate, but equally expressive in slow dirge-like movements and faster dance pieces.

And she was right - maintaining pitch and intonation was a challenge.

The longest work in the programme fell to Chiew, who returned in Johann Hummel's Potpourri Op. 94, which was a showy fantasia on popular operatic tunes by Mozart and Rossini. Predating similar potboilers by violin phenomenon Niccolo Paganini, Hummel's was no less virtuosic, but none of its hair-raising diablerie seemed to faze Chiew, who was commandingly secure throughout.

Having already expended his encore piece, Chiew departed the stage but lent his modern viola for Hsu's own solo encore.

That was a moving arrangement by Toshio Hosokawa of Handel's popular aria Lascia Ch'io Pianga from Rinaldo, proving that whatever the human voice can do, the viola could do even better.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2019, with the headline 'Viola takes centre stage with agility'. Subscribe