Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Interview: Brendan-Keefe Au and Ayano Schramm-Kimura - 2 Aug 2016

Its been a while since we've seen Brendan Keefe-Au perform on a proper concert onstage. This time he will be joined by Bangkok-based soprano Ayano Schramm-Kimura and pianist Yi Kai in a programme entitled A Little Bit of Magic.

Printed copies of photography by Cynthia Ong-Lamb and a booklet poetry by Pamela Ng will also be given to audiences. Looks like its going to be a great opportunity to be acquainted with different aspects of Singaporean arts. Check out the interview below to find out more!

The Mad Scene: Tell us about your programme, what are you performing and why did you choose these selections?

Brendan: Hi Steven! Thanks for having us on The Mad Scene, always a pleasure.

Our upcoming recital is entitled A Little Bit of Magic, Ayano and I will be performing songs themed around magic with our good friend, pianist Sim Yikai. This is a concept recital, so we are going to do more than just music—we are going to explore the theme of magic through a combination of art song, original photography and original poetry.

I’ll talk about the music first. The programme is essentially mixed. You will hear songs and piano solos across different styles and periods in English, German and French. We will have five sub-themes: 1.) Magic in the forest, 2.) In the waters, 3.) In the heavens, 4.) In faraway places, and finally, 5.) In the mundane.

Expect to meet the legendary but evil Elf-King of Scandinavian folklore; travel to the wizard Prospero’s island in The Tempest; and hear the water sprite of Slavic fairytales, Rusalka, sing to the moon. These are but just some of the spellbinding stories that we are so privileged to share with the audience.

Some musical highlights would include Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs. I understand this is only the second time that the entire work has been performed in Singapore, and I’ll leave Ayano to tell you about her pieces. But for me, I’ll be doing some rarely performed pieces by Liza Lehman and Lee Hoiby alongside our beloved Purcell, Schubert and Wolf. I’ll also be doing, for the first time, cabaret songs at the end! ☺

Ayano: Just a quick word about Alban Berg! When I say I sing Berg, people get terrified because they immediately think of Wozzeck and Lulu, and they would probably try to find an excuse not to hear the performance! But this set of songs is so unique and beautiful, somewhat resembling works by Brahms and Hugo Wolf. To be honest, I did not know much about Berg until this work was given to me by Professor Lukasovsky of the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. It was beyond my comfort zone and so at first I did not know how I was supposed to sing them, but he helped me to study these wonderful pieces of music in detail. Then one day, I just understood them. We all need to respect what composers wanted, but at the same time, we need to bring in our own interpretation. The professor’s advice was “to follow your feeling,” and that’s what I did!

Ayano Schramm-Kimura, Soprano
Brendan: Visually, we are very lucky to have on board this project abstract photographer Cynthia Ong-Lamb and my dear friend, Pamela Ng, to contribute their original works to this concert. Cynthia and I have jointly curated a collection of her photographs inspired by the opera arias and art songs of the concert.

The photographs are of local flora and places, but in them you will find recognizable symbols of the characters and stories of the concert. We have curated four sets of photographs—each themed around either the Forest, Water, or Sky; and each audience member will receive one set.

When I first saw Cynthia’s work, I was impressed by the vivaciousness of the lines and the rich symbols that materialised in the abstract compositions. The key element was how the flowers seemed to take on the characters of the concert repertoire. I knew immediately that we had to include her work in the concert somehow. And wow, here we are today!

On the other hand, Pamela’s poems will re-interpret the texts of the songs. I won’t say too much here, lest I spoilt the surprise. Suffice to say for now that Pamela is a very talented writer. She has a way of opening up worlds and sensations with her words. And I am confident that you would enjoy her writing.

All in all, I guess what we are trying to do with this photograph and poetry project is to re-situate the pieces of the night into a Singaporean context, as many of these songs originated as European fables and fairytales.

Finally, in doing these little extra things for this recital project, my hope for our audience is for them to be able to engage more deeply with the music by creating layers of meaning.

Magic is all about sparkle and flair. It is about surpassing expectations, and defeating the rules of the mundane world. In that spirit, we are inviting audiences to explore deeper between the lines, to tread between alternative perspectives and alternative dimensions of art. I hope that this will create a deeper intellectual and emotional experience for them.

So OKAY. Whew! Deep breath. In a (rather big) nutshell, this is what our concert is about, and why I have chosen to do what we will do.

The Mad Scene: How did the two of you decide to perform in a recital together? I understand that the recital will also be performed in Bangkok?

Brendan: It was a natural choice, really. Ayano and I met some years back in Thailand in a masterclass with the esteemed Graham Johnson, and we instantly clicked as friends. We share a love of art songs, interpretation and poetry, and it was only natural that we would do something together one day. Aside from that, we have a lot of other common interests, like dogs and law school, and whenever we get together it is always so difficult to stop yacking!

Ayano: Yea, and why in Bangkok? Well—why not? We put in a lot of effort into creating this programme. It would have been a shame just to perform in once. The programme is so uniquely constructed, I really believe that the music lovers in Bangkok would also appreciate what we are going to perform.

Brendan-Keefe Au, Tenor
The Mad Scene: Brendan, its been a while since we last saw you onstage, what have you been busy with since then?

Brendan: Well my creative box was busy spinning. I didn’t think I was ready to do a recital again. I’m what I might call, a boutique tenor. I may not appear too often. But when I do, I really try to give quality, and that takes time and effort.

Sim Yi Kai, Pianist
The Mad Scene: Take us back to the beginning, what inspired your love for singing and music?

Brendan: I joined the choir at age 13 back in ACS, and never stopped singing since then. I’ve always loved music. My mum is a ballet teacher so we always had all kinds of music in the house. When I was young, it was quite typical on weekday nights for my mum to be choreographing in our living room, while my brother deejayed in his bedroom, while I howled and clanged away on the piano in mine. So— genes. I guess that’s where my “itch” for singing and music came from.

Ayano: When I was little, my parents had a vast collection of records and my house was always filled with music. I liked going to bed listening to flute music by Patrick Galloit. I had my breakfast listening to Midori performing Paganini’s Caprice. I had my afternoon snack listening to either Callas, Te Kanawa or Obrazova, often mimicking their singing. But it was the Vienna’s Boys Choir that inspired me to sing Schubert’s songs and I remember learning Heidenröslein by just listening to it, although I didn’t know what the song was about.

I started singing properly when I studied in the UK at Rugby School, I only enrolled myself to take piano lessons, but when the Music Director heard me sing the Queen of the Night's aria (without the text!), he persuaded me to take singing lessons with his wife. At the end of the school year, I was given an opportunity to sing arias from Madam Butterfly and Tosca with the school orchestra in front of a thousand guests! Now that I think of it, I was way too young to sing such heavy repertoire!

The Mad Scene: How has your love for music informed your life?

Brendan: Music is life and life is music—a substantial part of it is for me anyway. Maybe I’m a little unorthodox in that I have a lot of other non-musical things in my life, like law school. It can be quite crazy keeping everything in the box all the time.

But these amazing experiences add perspective, and I feel incredibly lucky, and all the more richer as a human being, to have been fed by the wisdom of more than one discipline.

In that regard, being a practising musician has informed me on how I ought to live my life—as a living, feeling, but also thinking human. It is okay to be imperfect, but you must learn to use what you have to its full potential.

You can embark on any endeavour you want, but when you do, you must commit to excellence. And excellence is not about prestige, being better than others, or more prominent than others; it is about humility, mastery of self, and deep engagement with your chosen expertise. It’s about knowing your stuff.

I also think music is a great source of rejuvenation and a source of comfort in difficult times. It is like a mentor in life, teaching you how to approach the vicissitudes in life, and celebrating your highs and victories with you.

There was a time when I was dealing with a lot of grief, and in a very personal way, Rachmaninov, Chopin and Mozart helped me to process my experiences and re-frame my thoughts. So those are some of my thoughts on how music has informed my life.

Ayano: music is part of me – this is how I often express the most intimate emotion I have inside me, although I do not know how what it is. Or let it fill my mind and I can just succumb to it completely. For me it is like the air I breathe every day and it could make me feel stronger, or even weaker. At first I spent more time practicing piano and the way I approached it was rather egoistic, I mean I just play the music how I wanted. But singing is a bit more complicated. You need to understand the background more thoroughly: learn about the composer, background of the composition, true meaning of the poetry… and after understanding it, you can bring your own interpretation. This is extremely stimulating and challenging intellectually. There is simply an endless list of things you can learn from music, how enriching is that!

The Mad Scene: What are your future plans after this recital, music or otherwise?

Brendan: On 29th October I’ll be performing in a concert organised by the State Court’s Community Justice Centre. It is called Voices from the Courts, and includes artwork inspired by the voices of litigants-in-person in the State Court. It will take place at the Arts House, so keep a look out!

Ayano: There are many projects I would like to realise, for example, performing rare German Lieder with the romantic guitar, [Brendan: oh my god. You are a woman after my own heart.], songs by Barbara Strozzi accompanied by the lute, Baroque (especially Handel’s works) arias/cantatas with the theme of empowering women with a small Baroque chamber orchestra and contemporary artsongs by composers such as Schoeneberg, Berg, Ravel, Poulenc and Samuel Barber.

I also love the Peregrina cycle by Möricke, but combining compositions by Hugo Wolf and Othmar Schoeck, which has not been done before. I am also strongly interested in working with artists from other fields such as contemporary dancers. Let’s see how much time I have for that!

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