Category Archives: Music

Prokofiev’s whales

I’ve been binge listening to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 recently. Premiered when he was 21 years old, the work is a unique combination of classical, romantic, dissonant and contemporary elements that will be emblematic of Prokofiev’s style to come. The grand overflowing polytonal theme in the beginning of the first movement is enough to send me over the edge. The same theme is heard again twice through the work. Prokofiev once called these 3 passages “the three whales that hold the piece together”. How apt!

Here’s Argerich wrestling with the whales.

The second movement could easily fit into a James Bond-esque movie.

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Evans, Satie & Chopin

This is not a music blog. Yet my recent posts seem to revolve around music. Maybe because I have been listening to music more often. Listening to familiar favourites can evoke past epiphanies. Sometimes new insight comes along. It’s like rediscovering a place that you thought you knew so well.

Here are 3 musicians who did not cross paths physically. And yet there is a common thread in all three works listed here:

  • They have a simple recurring bass line, where the same notes recur throughout the entire work. This is sometimes known as ostinato, or persistent repeats. Or basso ostinato, literally meaning obstinate bass.
  • The melody is carried out in the treble line. This sometimes blossoms into something great.
  • Piano! Piano! Piano!

In reverse chronology:

1. Peace Piece by Bill Evans (1929 – 1980)

A chance discovery on the radio in my teens, Peace Piece left a deep imprint. That also got me started on Bill Evans.

2. Avantdernières Pensées by Erik Satie (1866 – 1925)

Music of the master of minimalism.

3. Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Chopin fully utilised the treble line to show off his composer chops, and for a pianist to show off his or her dexterity.

A berceuse is a lullaby. There are moments where it feels like butterflies fluttering over calm waters.

Finzi’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano

On the theme of bucolic music (see my post on Troldhaugen), I’m reminded of English composer Gerald Finzi. At a friend’s recital last week, the programme had included a couple of Finzi’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano. The whole set consists of 5 bagatelles and makes for a satisfying listening experience.

The Bagatelles are perfect examples of how well the clarinet and piano complements each other. The clarinet – which is often said to have the range “closest to the human voice” – is personable: it sings and moves the listener’s heart gently, never forcefully. The first three of the set were written shortly before he was drafted to work for the Ministry of War Transport in 1941. Together with a fourth, the Bagatelles was premiered in 1943. perhaps uplifting the spirits of war-weary recital goers. The finale to the set – a lively fast-paced piece – was added a year later.

What I like about the Bagatelles is that it’s down-to-earth. I read somewhere that ‘bagatelle’ means “a short, unpretentious instrumental composition”. In urban slang, it probably means no-bullshit music.

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!

A Norwegian morning

Woke up to a hot Singapore morning. I turned on the radio: Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Sat down to listen even though I was about to dash off to the office and instantly I’m uplifted. Funny how music that was written for a specific occasion can bring such delight even when listened to on its own. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard this gorgeous piece, probably in my late teens.

Little did I know many years later – this June – I would visit Troldhaugen itself! 

Edvard Grieg named his home Troldhaugen which means “trolls’ hills”. It sits by a picturesque lake, in scenic Bergen. The house is now conserved as a museum: the composer is the pride of Norwegian classical music. He had a very successful career during his life time – some say owing to his Scottish roots, others say having a shrewd publisher helped. He shot to fame at the age of 25 with the Piano Concerto in A minor. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen was written much later, and forms part of a set for piano called Lyric Pieces. Actually that whole set is a goldmine of elegant yet homely music.

Scenic Bergen, Norway.

Scenic Bergen, Norway.

Scenic Bergen, Norway

Scenic Bergen, Norway

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Troldhaugen.

Here in this little hut, a bit away from the main house, is where Grieg went to work in peace and quiet. The writing desk looks out to a Norwegian fjord. I am a firm believer that space – especially physical space – is needed for creativity to flourish, for the soul to be nourished.

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Troldhaugen overlooks this lake.

What does Norwegian music of a peasant folk style have anything in common with an Asian who lives in this corner of the world all her life? On the surface, very little. But the music is innately intimate and unassuming. It feels like music that one may have known for a very long time.

Season to season

The whole of last week was filled with coughs and splutters. The nose suffered from smell “amnesia” (the proper word for which is actually “anosmia”. No, I’m not that smart, Google told me that).  The flu season has returned. And so did the rainy season, at least in this part of the world. To think that just less than two months ago, I was gallivanting in the colours of autumn elsewhere.

Colours of autumn. Seoul, late October 2013.

Colours of autumn. Seoul, late October 2013.

After a week of using up lots of tissue paper and mentally swatting the flu bug, a friend and I met to catch up. It had been a while. On a whim, we decided to watch a Christmas concert by Vox Camerata. This is a community choir which accepts members without auditions. Kudos to them this year as they tackled some challenging works: Poulenc’s 4 christmas motets, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and a beautiful piece by Elizabeth Poston.

Elizabeth Poston was a composer and musicologist who collected folksongs and was an editor for carols and hymn collections. Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (sung in the video by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge) is one of her most well-known works. But did you know that the composer of this sweet music served as a secret agent during World War II? While working for the BBC, she used gramophone records to send coded messages to Resistance workers in Nazi-occupied countries.

If you like reading about music and coded messages during war time, check out this article.

Under the Spanish sky

I haven’t played piano in a while.  The piano which I bought with my first paychecks years ago stands silently in the living room. There’s never a good time to play the piano: I’m either home too late at night or always out on weekends. Perhaps I need to change my schedule.  A stack of newly acquired music scores are just sitting on the shelf, waiting to be massacred by me. Among them is a collection of Enrique Granados’ piano pieces. The least I could do is flip through and read it. Play some air piano.

At the Patios de los Naranjos, the Cathedral, Seville, Spain. In October 2008

At the Patios de los Naranjos, the Cathedral, Seville, Spain. In October 2008

I’m reminded of one notable champion of Granados: the great Spanish pianist, Alicia de Larrocha. Although a small woman –  said to be only 4 foot 9 tall (shrunk to 4 foot 5 later in life) – de Larrocha played the big virtuostic works of Rachmaninov and Liszt to rave reviews. But it is the music of her native country that she championed the most and brought international recognition to: composers such as the aforementioned Granados, Albeniz and Manuel de Falla. On youtube are a handful videos of her playing with fire and spirit at the ripe old age of 78.

Seville, Spain. In October 2008.

Seville, Spain. In October 2008.

As I’m reading the scores, I have been listening to de Larrocha’s recordings of Granados’ music. Listen to the range of colour and tone, the instinctual phrasing, the effortless way in which the dynamics fall into place, the inimitable nuances. Is it in her blood? Granados’ music is already elegant enough. But de Larrocha makes a simple valse from Granados’ Valses Poeticos sound extraordinarily poetic.

De Larrocha once said Spanish music is very very hard to play. It is. But that’s not going to stop me from trying.