S'pore Straits Times reviews Wong's Herringbone

Singapore's Straits Times reviews Yong Siew Toh Conservatory's concert 'The Modern Playground', a violin-piano recital by visiting artists Foo Mei-Yi & Bartosz Woroch:

A 90-minute concert of modern music for solo piano and solo violin on a Tuesday evening might not seem an enticing prospect for any except the most dedicated supporters of new music. Yet this one attracted a near-capacity audience.

Possibly, they were there for the world premiere of a work by Singapore-based Malaysian composer Adeline Wong. If so, they had nothing to complain about.

Herringbone was a coherently constructed, absorbing work which presented a vivid and visceral musical experience. One of the most spectacular things about this was the dazzling virtuosity of Malaysian pianist Foo Mei-Yi, who, among other things, reiterated a single note with absolute and tireless precision.

One should also not overlook the behind-the-scenes work of piano technician Eddie Low who had prepared the Steinway to such peak excellence that it easily withstood this concentrated attention on a single note.

Otherwise, much of the concert's first half took the form of an ingeniously devised programme of 21st-century miniatures for piano, organised into a single, continuous thread, linked by a sense of musical humour.

Some of the humour was obvious. Any piano piece called A Bear Playing The Double Bass And The Black Woman gets you giggling even before you hear the first note.

Some of the humour was gentle. Peter Eotvos ended his Dance Of The Brush-Footed Butterfly by instructing Foo's right hand to fly up beyond the highest notes of the keyboard.

Some was more subtle. Helmut Lachenmann's Hanschen Klein moved down the entire piano keyboard as it pretended to echo a song from Bizet's Carmen.

But Foo's brilliant pianism and easy, accessible musicianship ensured that, while there were no real belly laughs, everyone in the audience frequently broke into a smile.

Continuing the theme of musical wit, Foo's Polish husband, violinist Bartosz Woroch, ended the first half of the concert with a breathtaking performance of Dai Fujikura's Samarasa, in which a single note was played by the violin in more ways than anyone could have thought possible.

In the second half, Woroch excelled even himself with a truly stunning virtuoso account of the Sonata No. 2 by his compatriot, Grazyna Bacewicz.

The remainder of the second half seemed like a blast from the past. John Cage's Six Melodies for violin and keyboard had the haunting atmosphere of folk songs, but after the first two melodies, the limited sound world of this 1950 musical experiment made it outstay its welcome.

And in her Dancer Of A Tightrope, composer Sofia Gubaidulina revisited all the avant-garde cliches of the late 20th century, with Foo doing just about everything to the Yamaha grand piano other than actually playing on the keyboard.

Meanwhile Woroch tottered high above her and, at the end, remained poised, tantalisingly, in mid-air.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2018, with the headline 'Playground of musical humour brings out the smiles'.