Saturday, February 27, 2016

Interview Feature: 'Barbar the Little Elephant's Leslie Tay and Pauline Lee

I've known pianist Pauline Lee and tenor Leslie Tay for I started out in the arts scene eons ago, and its nice to see how far all of us have come. They will be presenting a recital entitled Babar the Little Elephant at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 4 March 2016 (this coming Friday), with two shows at 7.30pm and 9.30pm respectively.

Works by Poulenc, Samuel Barber and local composer Jin-Jun Lee are on the programme, with narration by Jeremy Lee. Here's a short chat with Leslie and Pauline to find out what we can expect in the show.

The Mad Scene: I believe that Babar the Little Elephant is promoted as a kid-friendly recital, what makes this recital more kid-friendly than the typical recital?

Pauline: Babar the Little Elephant is a character from a children's book which Poulenc has set to  of music as a song cycle. The story is sweet and meant for children.

Leslie: A lot of the songs are folk tunes, children songs or songs about animals. We chose material to tie in with the story book character of Babar the Little Elephant It started with Pauline wanting to play the Babar piece and I suggested programming the rest of recital around children, or rather themes of children and childhood.

The Mad Scene: I see, so what's Jeremy's role in all of this, as the narrator?

Pauline: The work is crafted such that text from the storybook is interwoven with the piano music, so he has an important role in conveying the story as animated as it can be!

The Mad Scene: I take it that Jeremy's narration will be in English?

Leslie: Yes! Though it also exists in French.

Pauline: Yes. Even though the original work was written in French, it's been officially translated to English and  comes in the publication of the original work. Poulenc was playing the piano one day when his 5 year-old niece came up to him and asked, "what's that you're playing? it's boring!" She then threw her copy of the storybook "The Story of Babar" onto the piano and asked him to "play this instead!" So Poulenc improvised some music to the text and it eventually became such a favourite in the family, he was finally convinced to publish it!

The Mad Scene: that's interesting! And what a nice way to get kids interested in classical music.

Pauline: It's just endearing how an incident with a young one turned into a happy playtime of music and story, and eventually into a published work where everyone can enjoy even after all these years.

Leslie would like to include a disclaimer that his tummy has slimmed down since the time the picture above was taken.

The Mad Scene: Jin-Jun Lee is not a composer that I'm familiar with. How did you guys get to know him and his work? What is his cycle Birds like?

Pauline: He's my brother, and a very talented young musician. Currently he's a final year trumpet major at YST and he's going to RNCM to do his Masters in Composition this September. He's been recognised widely for his excellent compositions.

The Mad Scene: oh I see, haha... looks like musical talent runs in your family.

Pauline: Haha my dad is a composer too. So maybe you're right!

The Mad Scene: So what are your thoughts on Birds? Is this a world premiere?

Leslie: Its his first foray into songs right?

Pauline: Birds is a set of 3 songs, yes its a world premiere! Its composed using traditional children's poems on the subject of birds (hen, robin redbreast, etc).

Leslie: Pauline was the one that suggested he write something for this recital.

Pauline: Leslie, what do you think of the Birds set?

Leslie: I think they are very cute and fun, its been fun learning them. Some of the piano writing is more interesting at times than the vocal line, gives Pauline a chance to show off her playing!

Pauline: Haha! Giving me more work right!? The three pieces are all different. All three are contemporary, tonal but with unusual interesting harmony peppered thoughout.

Leslie: Interesting texts too, the piece about the Hen for example, isn't really about a hen lol! Its a metaphor for something else, which Pauline kinda took issue with initially, but its such a sweet composition.

Pauline: Yeah my bro thought the poem was so sweet, hence the music reflects his feelings. The hen refers to a wife, the tune is very lovely and warm. So I'm sure he meant well, and not being sexist!

The Mad Scene: Ok, I guess the grownups that come will have to listen more intently to the song's subtext then!

The Mad Scene: Both of you have returned from overseas studies in Singapore, Leslie from a long studying and working stint in NYC, and Pauline from the Royal College of Music in London. How has life been for you since returning?

Leslie: Its been interesting for sure, very different from being abroad. Some very good things about being here include being able to find more work in music as the community is smaller.

Pauline: It's been great! I really enjoy the work I have at the moment, which consist of a mixture of performing, teaching and accompaniment. The music community here is small but generally a very supportive and inclusive group of people.

Leslie: In the US, its highly competitive and I always felt I was constantly fighting to prove myself and often feeling I came up short.

The Mad Scene: do you think the music community in Singapore has changed since you left?

Leslie: I started teaching more here too which has been very rewarding in its own way, a different fulfillment from performing.

Pauline: The arts scene has definitely grown a bit. You see so many new people, new talents, young talents and a lot more shows and performances. Encouraging signs!

Leslie: It has grown for sure, and the support that parents have for their kids in learning music seems to be overall at a much higher level.

The Mad Scene: Yes I thought so too, kids are starting so young now.

Pauline: And its good to start them young, with exposure and exploration.

Leslie: There seems to be a greater acceptance now that one can have a viable career in the arts.With the establishment of SOTA and YST and the proliferation of music schools, it has given the younger generation more avenues to explore music.

Pauline: I was very fortunate to have watched many concerts while I was young and I actually remember watching the symphony orchestra playing Brahms' Hungarian Dances while I was barely 4! The music left such an impression on me. I believe you cannot underestimate how much music can light-up the mind of the young ones.

The Mad Scene: Yes, I do hope that these kids will appreciate the experience of learning and performing music, and that it will stay with them as they grow up, even if they may not make it a career choice.

Pauline: Indeed.

The Mad Scene: Lastly, I've know the both of you for the longest time, would you care to share with our readers how you two became BFFs?

Pauline: Haha... We met while in River Valley High Choir when we were students, long long time ago. Then we lost touch for a bit. I was playing for an Esso-NUS concert and Leslie was watching it, and we reconnected at the concert. Later, I joined his a cappella group and we sang together for a number of years. We became really close friends and haven't looked back since!

Leslie: Pauline wandered into my life and refused to leave, so I guess I am kinda stuck with her!

Pauline: Whaaaaat!!!!

Leslie: But it helps that she is a great friend, emotionally perceptive, and one of the most musically sensitive vocal accompanists I have worked with.

Pauline: Muacks! I really do admire Leslie's focus and passion for singing and you must admit he's an excellent tenor! I'm so proud of all that he has achieved so far! And even more happy to have a caring, perspective and understanding friend in him.

Leslie: Oh stop it, actually .... No, don't stop, what else?! :-p

The Mad Scene: Well that's all the questions I have. Thanks for chatting guys!

Leslie: Thank you Steven, appreciate it!

Pauline: Thank you sooo much Steven!!

Babar the Little Elephant is on 4 March 2016, Friday, at 7.30pm and 9.30pm. Go to the Events Page for tickets!

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