Preamble (A rather long one)
It takes years to plan a piano festival. In my case, about 25 years.
It all started with a January evening in 1980 when I attended my very first solo piano recital. A young Seow Yit Kin performed a programme of Berg, Brahms, Grieg, Rachmaninov and Debussy at the Singapore Conference Hall to a full house. That got me thinking how a pianist plans his recital, one that can bring out all his musical and technical qualities, one that can both delight and challenge and audience, and one that would give the audience so enthralling an experience that they would return.
Forward some 22 years and the artistic directorship of PianoFest is handed to me by founding director Goh Yew Lin. Uppermost in my mind: which pianists did I want to hear and what piano repertoire should I programme in the festival?
Argerich, Brendel, Kissin, Sokolov, Lupu, Perahia, Uchida, Wild – all fanciful thoughts. We just couldn’t afford them – not with our budget. So the first festival under my wing in 2004 was to showcase “Legends of the Piano” – elder statesmen and stateswomen of the keyboard with an illustrious history and pianistic lineage. So came György Sandor, Paul Badura-Skoda, Idil Biret and Leslie Howard (It was originally Ronald Smith, but he regretfully retired to the great concert hall above, five weeks shy of the festival). Also on my list were Ivan Moravec and Sing-Mal’s veteran duo of Dennis Lee and Toh Chee Hung. So they would appear in 2005.
They and the others would play lots of Debussy, Ravel and the impressionists, under the banner of “Images, Impressions and Pictures”, the theme for 2005. Moravec declined again, but I decided to stick with the theme. Who else should appear?
I decided to take a chance on Asian pianists in impressionist repertoire. An artistic coup it should be but also a certain box-office risk. Korean super-virtuoso Kun Woo Paik was in the region – so that was an expedient yet very sound choice. I’ve always wanted to hear Japanese siren Noriko Ogawa in a solo recital; that was a cinch. For the fourth recital spot, I plumbed for little-known young Indonesian pianist Esther Budiardjo. Esther who? So captivated was I with her ProPiano recording of Leopold Godowsky’s Java Suite that I (and the Singaporean piano-loving public, I thought) had to hear Esther Budiardjo “live”. And they all agreed to come.
About the Young Virtuoso Recital featuring Lim Yan, I just wanted to showcase a young Singaporean in PianoFest alongside the more established names and to share in the same spotlight. I got some flak from certain quarters: Why “dilute” the quality of the festival? Can’t these young local pianists organise recitals for themselves? Where are you going to find pianists every year? What if nobody wanted to hear them? Where is the funding? et cetera (Whenever a difficult question arises, that last question surfaces as inevitably as the sun will rise.)
Nevertheless, I persisted. I persuaded the family of the late Datuk Tay Hooi Keat to part with ten grand every year for the cause, with the naming rights of the recital in his memory. Now to come clean, Datuk Tay is my maternal grandfather. He was a pioneer in the modern Malaysian art movement and someone that comes closest to being a modern day Renaissance Man. All his descendents, despite their multiple postgraduate degrees, professional, artistic and sporting achievements, and earning capabilities, can only pale in comparison.
He had no university degree to his name, came from a humble family and was of simple means. He was a visionary but a God-fearing man. Most of all, he was your Norman Rockwellian image of a typical granddaddy, who regaled his grandchildren sitting on his lap with fantastical tales and sleights of hand. He single-handedly stimulated my interest in art, war history, travelling, and also encouraged me in my piano playing. Perhaps he is having a conversation somewhere up there with Ronald Smith and Olivier Messiaen (who was a contemporary) right now…
I got the good people at the Singapore Symphony organise a Meet-the-Artiste reception at the Conrad for the pianists, Friends and subscribers of the SSO. Previous receptions either had to be cancelled (due to a lack of interest) or were well attended because of the artistes invited (Steven Isserlis, Gil Shaham, Truls Mork et al). This time, five of the six pianists in the festival were present. After hors d’oeuvres and champagne, we had a public interview. This was a chance for the pianists to share about their lives and art, in front for a small and intimate inquiring audience.
It was also a good chance to suss out the off-stage personalities of each pianist. Old friends Dennis and Chee Hung were their usual bubbly selves, the former a serial raconteur. They make a great couple. Young Lim Yan, all of 25 years, is confident and articulate. His years in Manchester must have helped. Kun Woo Paik originally struck me as aloof and arrogant in his email communications (probably in large part due to his agent) but in person, and accompanied by his wife, was as warm as sunshine. I did not know what to make out of Esther Budiardjo. She seemed so shy, so reticent, so retiring that one would not have suspected her to be a concert pianist. I imagined her to be one of those quiet girls you would encounter at parties, awkward and out of place, one who would not get a first dance till late in the evening. But do read on…
The interview was lively and the ice was broken. After the reception, I heard Dennis and Chee Hung in rehearsal at Victoria Concert Hall (VCH). A great concert awaits!
Thursday 30 June
I am not going make this a review page of the festival – I’ll leave that to the critics. This critic is taking a break, and will be joining the other side for four evenings, to be praised or pilloried with my selected pianists. Instead I will record my impressions as they come about, for better or for worse.
When Kun Woo Paik (left) suggested Sorabji’s The Perfumed Garden for his recital, I did not bat an eyelid. I wanted to challenge Singapore’s very conservative audience with something out of the ordinary and hope that they experience something new in the process. Unfortunately we (Singapore Symphonia Co Ltd, the company that underwrites the festival, and myself) paid the price with the smallest house of the festival. Audiences stayed away from Sorabji, Scriabin and Rachmaninov (his rarely heard First Sonata) in droves.
Sorabji needs to be experienced, not merely heard. On first acquaintance, this erotic tone poem for piano just sounds like a mass (and mess) of randomly played notes, and I suspect we’ll all need many more re-acquaintances (and not a small quantum of patience) to make more sense of it. Paik’s Scriabin (Sonata No.10, also rarely performed) brought back memories of Horowitz’s famous recording but the true highlight was the Rachmaninov. Although not the first performance in Singapore, it totally eclipsed my previous “live” experience of the piece. On a different plane altogether, a more complete performing experience could not have been hoped for.
After the recital, two young Korean ladies followed me to meet the Korean maestro (or so I thought). They chatted with the lovely Mrs Paik, who soon proceeded to autograph their programmes. Autographs by proxy? What a neat idea, but imagine my embarrassment when the two young ladies revealed that they had actually come to meet Mrs Paik, who happens to be one of Korea’s most famous actresses! She may be the silver screen idol Yoon Jung-Hee, but “On concert tours, I am Mrs Paik,” she modestly explained. Married for some 31 years, the Paiks are a most loving pair. We then proceeded to MakanSutra, the para-Esplanade al fresco food hangout for supper and beers. PianoFest certainly keeps us filled, not just with music!
Friday 1 July
Noriko Ogawa had arrived the evening before but I had missed her when she came to Victoria Concert Hall for her practice. This evening, I interviewed her in front of a very attentive audience. She is the promoter’s (and interviewer’s) dream – not only is she eloquent, she speaks perfect English and cuts the aura of a superstar. Yet she is so friendly and down to earth. The interview titled quite pompously “From Tokyo to Leeds and Beyond: The Life of a Concert Pianist” (by yours truly) was one of the slickest I have conducted, in large part due to Noriko’s bubbly personality. She recounted how all her famous piano teachers (including Juilliard’s Sasha Gorodnitzki) had died very soon after giving her a few lessons, drawing chuckles from the audience.
I have been a fan of Noriko’s playing ever since her first performance with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1988 (Mozart’s K.467). She has performed on no less than five more occasions with the SSO (Tchaikovsky No.1 – twice, Beethoven Emperor, Tcherepnin Nos.2, 4, 5 & 6) but has never given a solo recital. I was not disappointed. She is capable of the widest range of dynamics, from crystalline pianissimos (in Takemitsu) to ear-shattering fortissimos (in Mussorgsky), with much musicality in between.
I had the fortune of sitting with Esther Budiardjo in the audience. And what a delight it is to see her warm up, breaking the silence with her infectious laughter. I took the opportunity to introduce her to local composer John Sharpley and young conductor Darrell Ang, and I’ll bet my last penny that they found her equally charming. Despite her quiet and demure exterior, she is someone who could grow on you. Let’s hope her playing is the same.
For Noriko and her loyal band of groupies, its back to MakanSutra. No beer but we stayed till after one in the morning.
Saturday 2 July
One of the worst things about holding a concert at the 100-year-old (and not totally sound-proofed) Victoria Concert Hall is that you could be competing with the noise that takes place in front of City Hall and Supreme Court during the festive months. Some years ago, a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor was totally wrecked by the Chingay procession (Singapore’s equivalent of the Pasadena Parade of Roses). This time, Esther Budiardjo’s Debussy Estampes was to suffer the same indignity. Despite reassurances from the Singapore Armed Forces that they would limit the noise level during the National Day Parade rehearsals, loud blasts, rock music and the voices of annoying DJs issued from the Padang, sullying the stillness and silences of La soirées dans Grenade.
After Jardins sous la pluie, I had the recital stopped, apologised to the audience for the unwanted intrusion and begged their patience for the noise to end before we could restart. Nobody left the hall. Esther, on her part, was totally unfazed, explaining that she had been able to tune out all extraneous disturbances. Anybody less would have thrown a tantrum. I sensed that she was one with the music throughout, steadfast and unflinching, never allowing any external factors to cloud her communion with the composer and audience. It was a case of cannons versus music, but music won.
The rest of the concert proceeded without a hitch, and we were rewarded with exquisitely sensitive and magical moments with Tansman, Godowsky and Chopin. Her encore was an Indonesian song Tembang Alit by Jaya Suprana, which moved my wife Janet to tears. For me, Esther Budiardjo was the find of the piano festival, including the many editions that came before this one. She may appear diffident at first, but once you enter into her musical and sound world, you get inexorably drawn into a rarefied realm of artistry. Few have that rare privilege and it is my calling to share that with as many people possible.
Did I also mention that she increasingly began to remind me a lot of Janet, the ultimate girl-next-door, the one you could not wait to bring home to mother? I got to meet her parents and brother, and they too reminded me of my wonderful in-laws. The fact that both Esther and Janet’s parents come from Jakarta was totally coincidental.
Sunday 3 July
The final day of PianoFest begins in the afternoon with the Young Virtuoso Recital. I chose Lim Yan to inaugurate the Young Virtuoso Recital Series because he is simply the most promising young pianist to have emerged from Singapore in recent years. One observation is that our nation has been producing wonderful young violinists – Kam Ning, Lee Huei Min, Tang Tee Khoon, Grace Lee, Yuuki Wong – but no pianists. Lim Yan is the one shining exception. I even went on to name him as the most talented Singaporean pianist since Shane Thio. Almost twenty years separate these two virtuosi, but it was well worth the wait.
Shane, the most all-rounded pianist in Singapore’s musical history (solo, concerto, chamber, repetiteur and collaborative work, contemporary, popular, prepared piano, harpsichord, organ – he has done it all) does not suffer fools easily. He is also rarely seen attending other pianists’ recitals, but he came to hear Lim Yan play. That says quite something.
And Yan delivers the goods. Dennis Lee once judged him in a competition in UK, and said the adjudicators “were forced to hand him the first prize”. So compelling was his Barber Sonata – played with the requisite finesse and ferocity – that it was hard to ignore. His Poulenc, Bach-Rachmaninov and Schubert were not bad either. He is most comfortable in the thorniest of passages, but could do with some tuition (perhaps from the likes of Dennis or Chee Hung ) with his shaping of phrases in more sedate passages, such as in the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata D.784. But he is certainly going places and the sky’s the limit!
The veteran duo of Dennis Lee and Toh Chee Hung (above, left) finally gets to play a complete four hands recital. No matter how often I hear them play together, I never get bored. Such is their chemistry and infectious zeal – and they draw the biggest house of the festival. And its not because their programme was a lightweight one (Singaporeans have a preference for fluff and the familiar); their Schubert, Mozart and Chabrier was balanced with McPhee, Ravel and Debussy, drawing a final chapter to the impressionist, Asian and Javanese (or Balinese) theme. People come to hear their Torville and Dean act on the piano or two pianos, to experience poetry and beauty when two wonderful artists commune as one. Just the perfect way to close the piano festival!
And to 2006!
If there was one thing I learnt from this festival, it was not to be too adventurous. Do not plan esoteric themes that fly above the heads of potential audiences. Do not be too sophisticated or too subtle. Stick to the safe, tried (or tired) and tested well-trodden path. Select more non-Asian pianists and “bigger names”. Programme more Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann or even Richard Clayderman transcriptions. Dumb down more, perhaps…
Over my dead decomposing body!
Its sad that the house should suffer low attendances because of the likes of Sorabji, Scriabin, Takemitsu, Tansman, Godowsky and Barber but is it not my duty to challenge audiences by opening their ears to new and less familiar music? One member of the audience remarked that there was too much Debussy in this year’s recitals. But wasn’t that just the whole point of it all? Piano technician extraordinaire Walter Haass joked that soon someone might complain there being too much piano music in the Piano Festival!
My resolutions for 2006: more comprehensive marketing and all-round publicity for the recitals, major sponsorship, make a bigger event of the whole festival, create a better and more user-friendly webpage, revive the piano festival newsletter et cetera. But dumb down? No, no, no, never!
So its more Godowsky, more Scriabin for next year’s festival “Golden Age of the Piano”, more Singapore premieres, plus the delights of Scharwenka, Stravinsky, Busoni, Medtner, Dutilleux and George Crumb…
I’ll be back.