Category Archives: All the world’s a stage

Theatre. Recitals. Concerts.

Herbie & friends

Many years ago I started getting hooked on the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck when none of my friends were. Even then I didn’t get to step into a jazz club until I was 20… my first was Reduta in Prague!

Later on when I started having a little bit of savings, I wondered if I could ever treat myself to such a luxury trip to fly to Canada just to watch the Montreal Jazz Festival. Maybe catch Oscar perform acrobatics on the piano (he then passed away a few years after my first such musing). As much as I like travelling and music, flying overseas just to catch concerts just seemed a bit excessive.

Over the years the Singapore arts and entertainment scene has really elevated (overhyped? internationalised?) itself to bringing in superstar names. At what cost? Humble me don’t quite know. But I’m not complaining this time, because lo and behold, Herbie Hancock was invited to Singapore for the Mosaic festival. Performing with him tonight were the superb Vinnie Colaiuta, James Genus and Lionel Loueke. Loueke was a surprise to me and the segment with African folk themes was a delight. Overall the concert was just ultra ultra ultra cool. And hot hot hot at the same time. Does this make sense?

That it happened here is just too good to be true. And I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket just to watch it!

Princess Wen Cheng The Musical

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Very few musicals combine a legendary Far East figure, epic grandeur, resplendent costumes, culturally attuned choreography, and sets that are evocative of the time, place & culture in history and the glorious Tibetan mountains. The Chinese title’s font design on the poster is a nod to Tibetan scripture. The Chinese title literally means “the light of the snow land”. Tonight (Friday)’s performance counts the Sultanah of Johore as Guest of Honour.

Princess Wen Cheng was a legendary figure in Sino-Tibetan history. Distant niece of the Tang Dynasty Emperor, Tai Zong, she was married off to the Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo. Those were the days  when women were moved around like pawns in the grander scheme of geopolitics, as Wen Cheng’s father lamented in one of the songs. Wen Cheng left all that is familiar to her, braved harsh weathers and travelled 1000 miles for the Tobu kingdom. Wen Cheng was a Buddhist. Legend has it that she, and Songtsan Gampo’s other wife, Brikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess who was also a Buddhist, influenced Songtsan Gampo and introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Other related legacies include the origins of the Potala Palace, today a UNESCO world heritage site.

Perhaps some changes might make this musical a great production: as a start, the lyrics could be improved upon in that currently they don’t quite fit elegantly with the tune, and are sometimes awkwardly phrased. Secondly, the performance could be pushed to a whole new level if the musical was accompanied by a live band/orchestra. But as it is, the production has the rare distinction of being a mainstream successful musical that portrays Asian cultural history. The attention to cultural artistic details is impressive – from the Tibetan samsara knot symbols appearing in the Tibetan king’s court, to dances that pay homage to the Tibetan tradition. Apparently the production team had visited various key locations in China and Tibet, retracing Wen Cheng’s route. There are a few other dance sequences which bear no relevance to the plot, one of which is the highly anticipated “thousand hands guan yin”, but nonetheless enjoyable to watch as individual set pieces.

Wen Cheng asks the Tibetan minister who escorts her on the arduous journey what his homeland is like, to which he replied “It is paradise”. The ShangriLa-esque portrayals by the sets and multimedia projections is evocative of this paradise. Add to that are vivid scenes of treacherous mountain crossings, and soaring eagles (portrayed by dancers) amidst the snow capped mountains set to some magnificent soprano singing.

Princess Wen Cheng The Musical, an entirely Malaysian production that has already played to rave reviews in KL, Taipei, China including Xi’an, said to be Princess Wen Cheng’s birthplace. Performing at the Esplanade till Sunday 13 January 2013. Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.

La Cage Aux Folles

Watched La Cage Aux Folles at the Esplanade on Friday’s preview night. Still prefer Esplanade as a theatre venue than Marina Bay Sands; the layout and atmosphere just feels more engaging. Went without expectations and totally enjoyed the performance. And even though I haven’t heard any of the numbers before, it isn’t difficult to leave the theatre humming the tunes. Long before Lady Gaga came up with Born This Way, there was already La Cage’s “I Am What I Am” belted out by a drag queen on Broadway. Apparently the composer wrote “I Am What I Am” in just one evening.

Based on the 70s French film of the same name, the story was brought to life on Broadway in the 80s winning some Tony awards and went on to inspire Birdcage which starred Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Now it’s being staged at the Esplanade by Wild Rice. Loved Tony Eusoff and Aaron Khaled’s voice. And Ivan Heng showed that one doesn’t need formidable vocal range to touch the hearts of audience. Funny, heart-warming and with such a cast, cabaret dancers and marvellous sets! Wild Rice really did a great job. The production runs till 4 August. Catch it if you can.

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Joke of the Year

Tim Vine is a British comedian famous for his puns and witty quips. A long long time ago, Okto (then known as Arts Central) used to broadcast The Sketch Show of which Tim Vine was part of the performing troupe. It’s addictive and absolutely hilarious.

This year, he won Lafta’s best joke with the line: “Conjunctivitis.com – that’s a site for sore eyes”.

Some time back, he swept the top prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with “I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I’ll tell you what, never again.”

Here’s another one for which he was named runner-up at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival: “Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.”

If all of the above still doesn’t move you (really?), here are some others:

“Velcro. what a rip-off.”

“So I got home, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up, and said ‘Who’s speaking please?’ And a voice said ‘You are.'”

What did I tell you? I just cannot resist puns.

Six Men with a voice – The King Singers

On Saturday, we were swept away by the marvellous voices of six men –  The King Singers – and their selection of Christmas pieces. This is one a capella group that enjoys tremendous applause and loud cheers even before they open their mouths to sing. It just goes to show just how popular they are.

Boy, it was one of those nights that you wish won’t end. Starting the concert with early music dating back to the 13th century, the King Singers sang beautifully and evocatively as the polyphony of sounds resonate at every  phrasing and effusion of tones and colours through the magnificent Esplanade Concert Hall. The six men – consisting of countertenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright, Tenor Paul Phoenix, baritones Philip Lawson and Christoper Gabbitas and bass Jonathan Howard – gave a performance that is so refined, seemingly effortless and yet beguiling, impassioned and poignant. And don’t let the veneer of purity in the execution of sacred pieces and the suits fool you – they are equally comfortable with upbeat tempo, humour and jazz beats, as can be heard in the performance of Geoff Keating’s Dave Brubeck-inspired God rest ye, merry gentlemen and Gordon Langford’s arrangement of Jingle Bells.

From as far as I could see, it was a full house. The encore was a crowd pleaser Deck the Halls and judging by the rapturous cheers and thunderous applause, I’m not the only one who went home enlivened.

Do Re Mi, Hong Kong!

One of my little quirks is to catch some music performance whenever I travel. Ditto for this trip to Hong Kong, where I caught a couple of classical music performance. I actually wanted to also check out a mini jazz fest in Soho, but time did not permit.

The first was a free lunchtime recital “Good Music This Lunch”, featuring cellist Wendy Law and members of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. The venue is the Agnes B Cinema at Hong Kong Arts Centre. An interesting venue for a recital as I thought this was an art house cinema. I managed to find my way there from the MTR, zigzagging through throngs of people who were heading towards the nearby Immigration building and mainland tourists posing for photos with – of all landmarks in Hong Kong – Revenue Tower (i.e. tax authority building).

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Singapore International Piano Festival – Arnaldo Cohen

If there is an annual event that I try not to miss, it’s the Singapore International Piano Festival. Now into its 18th year, this festival showcases 4 or 5 exceptional pianists annually. If I’m in town, every year I’ll ask yj and we’ll try to go for at least one recital. Although I wish I can go for all of them!

This year, I went for Arnaldo Cohen’s recital, together with yj & pl, both pianists. The first thing that attracted me to the recital was the pianist’s South American roots (Cohen was born in Brazil) and selection of Brazilian pieces (Nepomuceno, Nazareth et al) in the programme. But the key draw of the programme was Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne in D and Chopin’s 4 Scherzi.

Bach’s Chaconne in D (taken from his Partita) was originally written for the solo violin. In the hands of Italian composer-transcriber, Ferruccio Busoni, the Chaconne became a colossal piano work weighted with the sound of futuristic vision, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. Some say Busoni’s transcription is a polluted version of Bach’s original which is often described as being pure. But I think of purity as being distilled from complex profundity, and perhaps what Busoni did was really a matter of ‘reverse engineering’. The original by Bach was difficult enough, and Busoni’s version magnifies the difficulty even more. In Cohen’s hands, the work was projected with sonorous boldness that left the audience wanting more.

Chopin’s 4 Scherzi – perennial concert favourites – were also a delight to listen to. Having studied the Scherzo No. 2 score before, I found myself wondering during the performance – “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” Indeed, that was the draw of Cohen’s performance: quite apart from the taken-for-granted agility and articulation required of any performer, Cohen produces big sounds filled with thoughtful depth, warmth and wonderful phrasing that inspires and endears. Instead of just reproducing notes, this is certainly a pianist who knew what he was playing. And one of the most serendipitous things about going to a recital is learning something new, even on a time and tested piece.

The selection of pieces by Brazilian composers is refreshing as this is not quite the usual repertoire of the Singapore piano recital scene. Post-concert, pl overheard a member of the audience asking Cohen where to get the music scores and Cohen replied the music library in Brazil *lol*. In case anyone is interested, I did manage to track down Ernesto Nazareth’s Brazilian Tango scores on Amazon (the dotcom, not the rainforest) some time back.

Cohen dove into each piece right away with little deliberation. But the musical output itself is reflective of the pianist’s contemplation and insight. As a performer, he embraced the audience and further enticed with four encores. All in all, it was an exceptional night that inspired the crowd into enthusiastic hoots and frenzied applause. Let’s hope Mr Cohen visits again!