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NUS Arts Festival 2019: Variations and Variables (Review)

The power and variation of classical music on show.

Pianist Abigail Sin and violinist Loh Jun Hong come together for this musical showcase to open the 2019 NUS Festival of the Arts, performing chamber music pieces together to reveal the many variations and variables inherent in music. Oddly enough, this is similar to concepts in Mathematics, where there are endless varieties and variations in formulae and permutations, and a kind of beauty in that.

Accompanied by four charcoal paintings by President’s Young Talents finalist and artist Yanyun Chen, each made using about 200-300 scrawls, each painting served as a visual aid to each individual piece played. Before each piece, either musician would explain why they chose to include it in the performance, giving audience members a little more background and history to each piece, and their passion for the craft was evident with the amount of enthusiasm and knowledge they displayed with each ‘brief’.

As for the performances themselves, the recital opened with the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30 in E major Op.109. The opening rhythms of the piece used plenty of primary chords, and it was easy to get into the rhythm if we just sat back and relaxed. The piece suddenly went into a staccato upon the second stanza, a change in mood with the hastened rhythm and trills, almost like going on some kind of adventure down paths unknown, the notes reaching out to higher keys and putting us in a philosophical mood. In the third stanza, we return to the same original tune, yet in a variation of it, showing off the versatility of the chords but in a different structure. The high register staccatos made a good contrast with the melody Abigail was playing off, and it felt as if it was a kind of homecoming, a comforting mood as we returned to the original tune, more experienced after our adventure but happy to be in a familiar place once again.

For our second piece, Abigail performed one of her favourite pieces – Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano, alongside Jun Hong. Speaking about the piece, Abigail explained that she always felt excited if she got a chance to play it, citing its symbolism as a love letter to her. Armed with a haunting melody and plenty of clashing flats and sharps, if this was a love letter, it certainly was a tumultuous one, as if full of disagreements. Not an easy piece to play, the work was filled with highs and lows all over, technically challenging but with an end result that remains utterly melodious, almost as if this act of ‘tough love’ has created a thing of beauty nonetheless.

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Jun Hong then performed alone, taking on Bach’s Chaccone for Solo Violin. With the last time he played this piece as a teenager, he welcomed a chance to revisit the piece once again and perform it in front of a live audience. Bach’s Chaccone is a piece filled with intricacies and varied melodies, buoyed by a simple harmony that belies plenty of depth and meaning. As Jun Hong got into the piece, one felt as if it was representative of a difficult but satisfying journey, and the trials and tribulations that came with it. In the opening stanza, one felt as if we were climbing Mt Everest itself with the music, a wary but determined tone to it with one’s mind set on completing the task at hand. The beginning notes of Jun Hong’s melody run parallel to the beginning of the climb, a single sustained note applicable to how daunting the climb is. Jun Hong closes his eyes as he plays, as if he is feeling a connection to the music itself, and we too feel that connection to him. We ‘see’ him making progress up the mountain, expressing confidence the closer to the peak he gets and gaining momentum before the decrescendo begins, almost as if we are taking a moment to absorb the magnitude of the task. We hear Jun Hong’s fingers running through the different notes, like a climber’s heartbeat, half excited, half hyping himself about what comes next with a sustained b note. We’re finally at the peak, and it’s almost as if we see a little slice of heaven. There is only calm now, with multiple tunes played, one after the other, almost like false endings as each one becomes successively more beautiful to hear than the last. One thinks about how even when things seem like they’re over, there will always be a brighter day and a silver lining of better things to come still.

In the final piece, both musicians came back onstage to perform Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme For Violin and Piano Op.15. This was an appropriate piece to end off the performance, a full-bodied work that focused on having fun and bringing out the razzle dazzle, easily drawing audiences into the piece and showing off the various techniques and expressions that made themselves known throughout. At times, the violin leads, while at others, it is the piano, showcasing strong chemistry and teamwork, and that in any non-solo music performance, it really does take two hands to clap. Despite the huge limitations of the UCC Dance Studio (a thoroughly inappropriate space to stage a music-driven piece, given the noise pollution from outside and its ineffectual structure to accommodate for sound), both Abigail and Jun Hong prove themselves better than that, as they overcome the spatial challenge to produce a performance worth remembering. One closes one’s eyes and imagines all the different characters in the final piece, imagining them in a kind of Spanish bar, each with a drink in hand and enjoying the echoes within the building. Abigail and Jun Hong are proof of the calibre of young musicians today, and quite possibly, virtuosos in the making.

Performance attended 15/3/19

Variations and Variables played at the UCC Dance Studio on 15th March 2019. NUS Arts Festival 2019 runs from 15th to 23rd March 2019. For a full list of programmes and tickets, visit their website here

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