Saturday, May 28, 2011

Introducing a new Vivaldi specialist virtuoso: Kimchilla Bartoli:

The real deal (for comparison purposes):

Thursday, May 19, 2011

SSO 2011/12 Season Announced

And probably the most exciting event this coming season is 18 February 2012's concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. Other highlights include the return of Guangzhou-born Yang Jie, once the SLO's most formidable dramatic mezzo and an awesome Azucena. Check out for a complete list of concerts, or the Events Page for just the vocal events.

Sumi Jo + AAM in Review

16th May 2011
Concert Hall, Esplanade

Written by Hawk Liu

The glorious sound of the Academy of Ancient Music, using authentic instruments, opened the all-Baroque concert with Handel's Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 2. (Why opus 3 and not the more interesting and superior opus 6 concerti! Arrgh !)

As I was saying, the sound of the ensemble was glorious from start to finish. For those of you who are interested, there were 4 first violins, 4 seconds, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double bass, 2 oboes, 1 bassoon, 1 harpsichord, and 1 trumpet that came in only for the solos. The balance was perfect. About everything was perfect. All the strings were using gut strings and they are definitely great for articularion notes. Remembering my experiences using gut strings, I think the gut gave stronger incisive tones and exciting vibrations. Also, I made a point to listen to how 2 cellos and a doublebass would do - just the right amount of bass! Oh, I forgot about the theorbo - that 'lute' like thingie (as my friend put it) with an extension section for lower strings. The instrument was so soft I couldn't hear it most of the time. The pleasure of it's beautiful tones came only when it, with the harpsichord, were the only only instruments accompanyng Sumi Jo in Purcell's Music for a While. It was an exquisite piece, with embellisments I've had not heard another singer put in. It was great listening to 2 rare instruments live with the singer as a trio. Pleasure is the word.

Albinoni's concerto in C for 2 oboes op 9 no 9 really highlighted the beauty of the solo instruments. The 2 soloists were animated and competent. It was certainly a great display of an instrument seldom heard in our concert hall.

The second half started with Purcell's Suite from The Fairy Queen. Lovely pieces. I can't say enough good things about the magnificent Academy of Ancient Music with their wonderful instruments - entries were spot on, balance always good, tempi well chosen (except in Sonata a 5 - but that's only my opinion). Another Handel opus 3 (no. 5) was played in the 2nd half of the concert. (yawn - why not opus 6...). Alright, I did find some interesting moments in the concerto.

The only piece that didn't do it for me was Handel's Sonata no. 5. I always saw the first movement of this piece as a poignant and meloncholic one. The ensemble here took it quite brisk with the effect of it being too happy and frivolous. I almost wanted to tell the players not to smile ....too happy! Also, the solo violinist, in various places put in some 'late romantic'-like rubatos in both tempi and dynamics. I felt uneasy. However, in the rest of the movements, they were back in business. In fact, they were really exciting in the last movement where they brought out the motives well.

The programme ended with the ever popular Arrival of Queen Sheba. As usual, very exciting playing! Wish the piece was longer!

The format of the concert was the Academy playing one or two suites and Sumi Jo singing one or two pieces and so they alternated. As a vocal junkie (next paragraph for explanation), I found it hard to appreciate the concert that alternated vocal and instrumental pieces. To me, It's a bit like juxtaposing pop songs and opera arias in an alternate order in a concert. Hmm...difficult.....

Vocal Junkies - I learned that term a long time ago from another junkie - classical music enthusiasts who love listening to solo voices (usually operatic ones). We are the ones who would want to listen to a concert of solo voice(s) with no overtures or sonatas or any instrumental interludes between the vocal pieces. It's not that we don't enjoy the orchestral sounds, we did come to a Sumi Jo concert to just listen to Sumi Jo and anything else would be a delay of reaching that goal! (I imagine other musicians throwing stones at me). Don't get me wrong, it was a great treat hearing the amazing Academy play but I did wish it didn't play half the programme in a concert which would be well attended by vocal junkies. I am not alone in this respect.

A little bit about the acoustics of the concert hall. I find it too cavernous. The instruments did sound as if they were playing in a hall too large for their sound. Instruments and voices do not articulate well in the huge space and that had an overall sound that was less focused. It sounded like the reverb in a recording turned up just a notch too high.

Sumi Jo - this would be the first time I was hearing her live. What a treat - great silvery tones, a pure upper register, secure low notes, and a great smile! Oh, yes, there were 3 dresses! The first concert half had her in a shiny red gown that also came with giant lacy frills. She came into the second concert half with a most beautiful blue and while gown which she had to literally carry the lower half of while walking onto the concert stage. It had giant lacy frills. The third dress was a gold sequined gown. Yes, it came with giant lacy frills too! I see a theme here. She took a bow with the last gown and the audience obliged with enthusiastic applause.

Vivaldi's Nulla in munda pax was a joy, as was every other piece she sang! It was a polished gem with enjoyable embellishments in the da capo. Every low note was audible and secure.

Handel's Tornami a vegheggiar was exciting. This piece had the effect of making me smile every time I heard its introduction and I didn't stop smiling the whole way through the piece that night. The B section ended with a lovely cadenza. She did trip on a high note here. The da capo was magnificent. I was glad she didn't copy Joan Sutherland's embellishments here (overused by many singers) and I was kept on my toes, listening to interesting runs she came up with. The crowning glory was in the last cadenza. This time, she had this high note going on a surging long crescendo which went into subito piano with no lost of tone intensity! I missed a heart beat there!

Vivaldi's sposa, son disprezzata ended the first concert half. Although not taken too fast, I did wish for more 'sadness' in the interpretation. At this point, I did notice her putting in pianissimos in random places - and this happened in most of the other pieces too. I suppose the pianissimos might make sense in a small venue but I think it's hard to justify pianissimos in a 'cavernous' hall where the beauty of any pianissimos would be missed. Also, the choice of pianissimo placement seemed rather random for most parts. Sigh...

The trumpet came on to accompany on Handel's Let the bright Seraphim. This piece was always a crowd pleaser, so I waited excitedly to hear both singer and the authentic trumpet do their magic. I was duly rewarded with joyful music; incredible, articulate trumpet tones and exciting virtuosic singing. The piece is notorious for it's awkward breathing points, and Sumi Jo put us at ease with her fearless negotiation of those points, as well as with her fearless runs.

I waited eagerly for Sumi Jo's last programmed piece - Vivaldi's agitata, da due venti - very popular in the last decade with many singers. It's got fiendish interval jumps, unforgiving runs and mutliple, rapid, repeated notes. Due to the low vocal range of the piece, it enjoyed much success with mezzo sopranos. Well, the virtuosity held no fear for Sumi Jo and every note was there. The rapid, repeated notes were strong and sure. However, I noticed her body physically heaving for most of the runs. The interval jumps had near inaudible low notes (difficult for sopranos perhaps). The da capo was a good home run though. The higher flying embellishment notes were easy and always exciting. It was a great finish with the soprano beaming there. Lascia ch'io pianga as an encore piece was exquisite, apart from a few random pianissimos. (Sigh again.) For this piece she did put in an extra pound of passion. She sang full out in the last encore (Eternal source of light) with two extra pounds of passion - the piece's notes lying very nicely for her comfortable range and she ended with the highest note of the night!

Sumi Jo had an exquisite and skillful instrument. Although a light voice, it carried very well in the 'cavernous' (repetition intended) concert hall. There were notes a plenty where the voice floated effortlessly out of her and delivered to the spaces. The top register was always pure and beautiful. I did notice the voice taking up a variety of vocal timbre when she used different vowels because of the text, causing uneven vocal colours within single phrases. All in all, it was an experience to listen to a great voice doing its thing! Brava!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sumi Jo + AAM Interview Part 2

You've read my feature of Sumi Jo on TimeOut Magazine, about her concert with the Academy of Ancient Music (and if you haven't, please read it here). Below are some leftovers from Sumi and the orchestra's first violinist, ed verbatim, that unfortunately couldn't be used in the original feature but I feel is too good to go unread.

From Sumi Jo:

Is this the first time you are working with a baroque period instrument orchestra?

[한글답변] 원전악기로 연주하고 녹음한 앨범을 이전에 낸 적이 있습니다. (……언제 어떤 앨범인지 적으시면 되겠습니다.) 하지만 바로크 음악을 원전악기와 이렇게 공연하게 된 것은 처음인 것 같습니다.

[영문답변] I have made a recording an album with old instruments many years ago. But this seems to be my first Baroque concert with Baroque period instrument orchestra.

You became an international star by singing Mozart’s Queen of the Night and is well-known for your bel canto repertoire. What made you decide to go into baroque repertoire?

[한글답변] 처음 음악을 시작하면서 오페라에 대한 열정이 매우 컸습니다. 오페라 무대에 서는 꿈을 내일 꾸었지요. 이태리에 유학을 하면서 제게 가장 적절한 스타일을 찾아 가는 과정에서 Coloratura Voice를 가지게 되었고 운이 좋게도 Queen of the night을 연주하면서 많은 경험을 쌓게 되었습니다. 그 이후에 자연스럽게 오페라 이외의 다른 노래 영역을 많이 알게 되었고 차례차례 도전해 오고 있습니다. 바로크음악은 매우 음악적으로 잘 정제되어 있어서 좋은 연주를 하기 위하여는 많은 음악적으로나 삶에 대한 경험을 많이 필요로 한다고 생각합니다. 수년전 “Journey to the Baroque”라는 앨범을 내면서 바로크 음악에 淪臼많은 공부를 할 기회가 있었습니다. 그러한 경험으로 이번에는 바로크 음악을 원전악기 연주단체와 함께 만들게 되었습니다.

[영문답변] Once I dreamt about myself being an opera singer, I had a very strong passion for it. Everyday, I went to bed dreaming of performing on opera stage. While studying in Santa Cecilia, I finally found the most suitable vocal technique, coloratura for my voice and lucky enough to have an opportunity to sing Queen of the night. Over many years, I travelled various opera houses (as I continue to do it nowadays), I started to find other challenging areas of music naturally. I have been fascinated by concert stages that I can meet with many music lovers right in front of me. Many concert opportunities also provided me an opportunity to put more time on studying new and differ ent styles of music over the years. I also started to challenge myself to extend my repertoire as much as possible.

To perform Baroque music with quality, I believe, not only musical skill but also life experience plays very important role. With my Baroque album “Journey to the Baroque” recording few years ago made me study much about the Baroque music. With these experience, I would like to put best effort to make this concert.

What is your approach toward ornamentation of your baroque arias program?

[한글답변] 우선 원전악기와 연주하는 만큼, 연주와 노래가 좋은 음악적 효과를 내도록 노려할 생각입니다. 많은 분들이 영화와 같은 매체를 통하여 원전악기의 음색과 스타일을 기억하시리라 생각합니다. 작곡자의 의도에 충실하게 해석할 생각이며 때에 따라서 관객들과 쉽게 호흡하고자 노력할 예정입니다.

[영문답변] First of all, since I play with ancient instruments, I will try to produce best ensemble with voice and ancient instruments. I believe many audience should be familiar with Baroque music from movies (like Amadeus) and other media, therefore audience would understand different style and sound with ancient instruments. I will do my best to follow the composer’s intention of the song and also try to breath with audience in the concert hall.

AAM First Violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk:

The AAM is one of the pioneers of the Historically Informed Performance movement. How do you think the movement has evolved from the early days of the 70s till today? Also how do you think the HIP movement should advance and how do you see the AAM as a part of this advancement?

The differences between the early days and now are a natural manifestation of the different cultural backgrounds of the two eras. The HIP scene in the 70's, as in the world of avant-garde theatre or "progressive" rock music, was marked by a general feeling that there was freedom to experiment, there was a hunger for the new and it seemed as though it was easier to get projects off the ground. In London there certainly was an awful lot going on and although I was still at school my sister Lisa (a previous principal flute of AAM) was in the thick of it professionally and was taking me off to all sorts of concerts. While it took me a while to really "hear" and appreciate what that generation of musicians was trying to do there was a palpable sense of excitement at things being new and revolutionary. It would be dishonest to suggest that everything was totally fantastic of course, people were still finding out really how to deal with these different types of instruments and were just establishing a new vocabulary for all sorts of unfamiliar repertoire. In the string world, techniques of string and bow making were rather less sophisticated than now and in these and other ways the whole movement has matured and developed, in part due to the explosion of recording activity and the increase in touring during the 80's (my first tour with AAM was to Japan and Taiwan in 1984 on what was the first Far Eastern tour of a Western period-instrument group).

HIP is now pretty "mainstream". Practically every music festival in the world will have a period-instrument group of some sort. And modern orchestras' approach to the core classical repertoire has undoubtedly been influenced by the pioneering work of bands such as AAM - one can hear this in the number of players which modern bands tend to use now for Mozart and Beethoven and in the approach to tempi, articulation and to colour. This is all good of course, it's a big part of what the whole period instrument movement was about in the first place, to get audiences and musicians to re-consider musical traditions which had built up through the 19th and early 20th centuries. As we look to the future though, I think it's really important to re-connect as much as possible with the exploratory spark which started off the HIP movement 40/50 years ago. The "early days" were also marked by a sense of connection between performers and audiences, as though both were embarking on a journey together, and the AAM aims to keep this alive. All sorts of groups are now trying to exploit the Internet and modern communication in general to this end. While the Internet makes it easier for things to go corporate, large-scale and "Global" it should also be possible to use it to develop and enhance the intimate communication between composer, musician and audience member which is the essence of all music-making. Interviews with players, rehearsals available online, live streaming of concerts, tour blogs, message boards etc. these are becoming ever more popular and expected by the classical music audience, and the AAM is developing these important media (see the AAM’s youtube channel at I think that in AAM the exploratory spark is also kept alive by trying hard to be imaginative in programming – for instance, later this year we will be releasing the world-premiere recording of music by Christopher Gibbons. With Richard Egarr at the helm there's certainly never going to be a sense of "resting on laurels" and his daring performing approach ensures that things stay fresh.

FYI - Pavlo has recently released a much acclaimed recording of JS Bach's solo sonatas and partitas on the Linn label.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NO REGRETS - a tribute to Edith Piaf

NO REGRETS - a tribute to Edith Piaf

(Gala Night)

DBS Arts Centre

5th May 2011

reviewed by Hawk Liu


Hossan Leong
Denise Tan
Robin Goh
Hilde Home
Angela Scundi

What's an Edith Piaf's music cabaret show doing in The Mad Scene you may wonder. I had seen the 2007 movie on her life, and after coming out of this show last night, I'd say the life of Piaf deserved an operatic treatment. Hossan Leong, as the narrator, gave us her life story, interwoven with at least 24 Piaf songs by the cast. There was never a dull moment in Hossan's very lively narrative style. It was serious, poignant and funny throughout and the scriptwriting certainly worked well, bringing out the most essential and interesting aspects of her dramatic life story.

Arriving in the auditorium, I was greeted by a 4-man music set (piano, drums, syns, double-bass) on stage and I was surrounded by the audience of French-speaking Caucasians. I felt like I was in 'Little Paris" and a little fearful that Hossan would be rattling off in French the whole time as I knew that he was fluent in French. Thankfully for me, he spoke almost exclusively in English. The songs were mostly delivered in French by the largely non-French speaking cast and I was certainly impressed with the rather verbose songs they all had to sing. Some songs were sung in English and they did lose the essence of 'Frenchness' for me and some of the other people I spoke to, but as a justification, I was then told Piaf had sung many of her songs in English when she became an international star. So, the songs being given in English gave me a good idea of her art in English as well as in French, and in my opinion, a good decision.

Piaf's most famous song, La vie en rose, given in both English and French, began the show after Hossan's short narrative start. The singers came on by turns and one gets an overview of the different voices right from then. They were all wonderful voices. They all sung as if they meant every word and I would have believed them all if only I understood French. The emphatic manner of singing for many of the songs represented very well Piaf's singing style. You would always feel that she had something important to sing in each song. There were the dramatic songs as well as the soft ballads, all delivered to good measure by all the singers. My favourite voice of the night was Angela's attractive tone and range which she put to good use in many of her big solos. Robin's tone was also likeable and showed a good expressive range. Hilde had the reliable voice which was consistent throughout and Denise showed her commitment to everything she sang. Hossan had only a few duets and was totally enjoyable to listen to. The singers sounded well together in the harmony numbers. However, the sound balance could be better when they were doing backups to soloists. Their individual voices stood out too much. I reckon giving them harmony material might do better for them as backup singers.

Talking about balance, I was certainly pleased that the band was sensitive to being accompanists to the singers and not stand out too much. The danger of having a drum set in a small band is the balance. Under the watchful eye of Elaine Chan (music direction from the piano), it was a delight to hear sensitive playing from all. I must mention that the synthesizer player doubled as the solo violin, and it was lovely playing. Halfway through the concert, I realised how many of Piaf's songs were in 3/4 time and the incessantly 'oom pah pah' from the snare drum was tiring on the ears. Other than that complaint, it was very sensitive drum work throughout. The only song which was totally off balance for me was 'Black trousers and motorcycle boots'. That heavy metal of a song (was that really a Piaf song??) had a really loud metal guitar going and I swear I couldn't hear any of the lyrics except for 'Black trousers and motorcycle boots' in the chorus! Nonethesless, I was happy to hear an otherwise sensitive band playing and it helps to have good musicians behind the instruments.

The ending was poignant, with the cast singing as a duet to Piaf's own vocals on 'La vie en rose'. I came away knowing Piaf's life a little more and shared her joys and sorrow, and her strong drive for life and for realising her dreams in life.


No Regrets runs till 14 May 2011. More information below:

No Regrets, a Tribute to Edith Piaf

Venue: DBS Art Centre

Dates: 4 May – 14 May 2011

Tickets: Available at Sistic
Come discover the magical story of the most celebrated French icon of all time with No Regrets, A Tribute to Edith Piaf. Feel her life unfold with a musical revue hosted and narrated by Hossan Leong and experience the events that marked the rise of this extraordinary woman behind the classic La Vie en Rose. Along the way, marvel at her zeal for life. Despite the multiple tragedies that befell her, she could still find joy and passion in her singing and her many love affairs.
For more information, visit

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sumi Jo Feature on TimeOut

Mahler's Ressurection Symphony is playing in my head as I type this: thanks to the diva-power of Sumi Jo my professional writing career is thus revived! Check it out TimeOut magazine debut via the links below:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Martin Ng's "From Monteverdi to Mascagni" in Review

From Monteverdi to Mascagni
Exploring the Ialian Song Through the Ages
Martin Ng (bass)
28th April 2011
Esplanade Recital Studio
written by Hawk Liu

It's always good to have local singers featured as soloists at the esplanade - am I bias?

Singapore born Martin Ng gave us an evening of Italian art songs from the baroque to the late romantic period so we got a palette of styles in one evening. Composers featured included Caccini, Monteverdi, Cesti, Scarlatti, Caldara, Vivaldi, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni, in that order. It was a nice treat!

The first half had early music from Caccini to Vivaldi and a cembalo was used! YAY! It was a pleasure to hear the rare instrument featured so strongly in any concert here. Shane Thio did a splendid job with the embellishments and fiendish, difficult runs in Vivaldi. The instrument seemed schizophrenic to me in terms of sound. There were many moments it actually overpowered the singer, especially in the appeggios, and then there were times when the dynamic levels were so low, especially in the fast passages. Nonetheless, it was a joy to listen to it, and well played. The second half used a sub-six-foot grand. I thought the balance between voice and piano was perfect!

The voice was a large and rich one. Throughout the evening I was thinking of a similar voice in the recorded catalogue that Ng's voice could match. It seemed to remind me of a few voices and I couldn't place my finger on any specific one. I did keep one in mind and it was Samuel Ramey. I had trouble placing Ng's voice because, for a good half of the programme, Ng was giving a whole palette of different vocal colours, even within individual phrases, so much that I didn't know which voice was his. The low notes were secure and the high ones easy enough once he had warmed up. Negotiating intervals was easy and he certainly placed the voice well when he had to do the jumps. I particularly like his ability at florid passages, they were easily executed and exciting to listen to. They are the true 'bel canto' runs where notes are supposed to melt into one smooth string of pearls and not the incisive ones that one might get from, say, Cristina Deutekom who represents that kind of technique. Just to qualify, I enjoy both types of technical styles of doing runs.

Not all was well though. Amarilli, being the first piece, didn't do it for me with the over dramatising, which happened for the next few pieces as well. Because of the frequent change in dynamics (can't hear the pp notes!), the voice sounded like a clumsy bass at first. Maybe it wasn't so much the over dramatising per se, but the frequent changes in vocal colours that unsettled me. I wasn't sure what his real voice was - sometimes, there was the deep, big voice, sometimes there was the bright ringing one, and then there was a slightly nasal middle high note here and there, and there was the mezza voce which stuck out a bit when the immediately preceding notes are ringing so nicely (I wasn't so keen on the mezza voce because the larynx was pulled a bit too low for my liking). So I was confused. In the first two sets of songs, he didn't keep the intensity in the vocal line for much of the time.

The major element that didn't go well for the evening was the pitching - singing the actual notes. I would say for half of the time in some songs, he sang approximate pitches of the notes he was supposed to sing, or he would arrive at a note by micro-slides and would continue to micro slide from that note! At times, it sounded as if he slided through all the notes in the single phrases. I didn't recognise the melodies in some pieces, such as Gia il sole dal Gange and Amarilli.

In terms of presentation, my friends did mention that he didn't look at the audience enough. I disagreed. It happened only during the first piece and then he was connecting enough after that. Maybe what my friends perceived as non-communication might be the facial expressions used. That was quite a bit of expressions that were more for the execution of making the voice than for emoting and I was hoping for a more relaxed style of presentation. Certainly, I noticed a very pleasant smile whenever he took his bows and that was needed for most of the songs.

Despite the negatives, there were many enjoyable moments. He had a reliable and beautiful trill, albeit soft whenever executed. The Vivaldi - sol da te was a good example of bel canto singing and there were fewer off-pitching moments. I totally enjoyed the other Vivaldi (orribile lo scempio) with the florid passages well executed. The Vivaldi pieces, for the first time, showed that Ng was certainly capable of clean vocal lines and exceptionally delivery.

In the second half, the Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi numbers were regularly done and I started to feel more comfortable with the voice. By the time he got to Ponchielli (Dimenticar ben mio), I was hearing a more majestic voice with much, much longer flowing vocal lines. The voice was even in its range. There was the hint of Samuel Ramey's timbre. The ever popular Sole e amore (Puccini), sharing material with the quartet of La Boheme's third act, was slightly less flowing. I am glad to see the mischievous smile on Ng's face when he sang Puccini's name (originally written into the song) at the end. Another Puccini song, E l'uccelino, was used as the only encore, and it was well delivered. Mascagni and Leoncavallo were also well sung.

To sum up, the voice was more enjoyable in the second half of music from the Romantic and Late Romantic /Verismo periods. The voice blossomed in the Ponchielli piece more than any other, even more than the verismo ones. We were treated to many moments of beautiful long vocal lines, not forgetting the delightful runs and trills. We do wish Ng a good success in his career.