Time taken : >15mins
Performed by Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM)
Recorded on 30 & 31 Oct 2020 at Esplanade Concert Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven – Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" (0:06)
Joseph Haydn – Cello Concerto No. 2 (5:13)
Johannes Brahms (arr. Lee Jinjun) – Hungarian Dance No. 5 (31:53)
Felix Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4 "Italian" (34:46)
Video reproduced with permission from Orchestra of the Music Makers
Programme Notes by Rachael Chan
Such a declaration from the Austrian composer, whilst he was based in Hungary as a court musician, is crudely salient for music ensembles and practitioners across the world during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With a multitude of restrictions in place – such as social distancing, the wearing of masks, a limit on numbers both onstage and offstage, and disrupted travel plans – originality, innovation and adaptability have become necessary elements when staging concerts. This has been the case for the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) led by music director Chan Tze Law, and Chinese-Australian cello virtuoso Qin Li-Wei.
Li-Wei Plays Haydn, recorded at Esplanade Concert Hall as part of the OMM Restarts! series, is a refreshing attempt that combines innovative spark and musical finesse, a true testament to the flexibility of Singapore music groups in less-than-ideal circumstances. The earnestness of this musical outing between OMM and Qin belies the spontaneous formation of this partnership under exceptional circumstances. For one, performing a concerto for cello and chamber orchestra, alongside smaller miniatures, is highly atypical for OMM and indeed a far cry from the leviathan orchestral works it normally performs (read: Strauss, Mahler, and Wagner in the past three years). Meanwhile, Qin revealed in an interview leading up to this performance that he usually has a jam-packed tour schedule (50 performances a year!), and the pandemic resulted in cancellations across three continents.
When ensembles were given an opportunity to perform music to a live audience in October 2020, OMM immediately seized the opportunity and reached out to Qin, who last performed with the orchestra in 2012. Behind the scenes, OMM’s artistic team returned to the drawing board with spreadsheets resembling “permutation and computation” tables to determine which pieces had the optimum orchestral size that met the necessary Safe Management restrictions. Ultimately, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major triumphed partly due to pragmatic reasons: it only required two brass and two woodwind players, which met the requirements stipulated for two live performances (of the concerto’s first movement) in the Singapore Conference Hall.
The recording is a unique treat, as we can relish in Qin’s performance of all three movements of the concerto. While Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto in D major is considered a staple in a professional cellist’s repertoire, it is often overshadowed by its effusive and extroverted sibling, the First Concerto in C. Despite the subdued popularity of Haydn D—as it is affectionately called by cellists—the concerto’s character is highly endearing, one which Qin describes as “elegance, refinement and charm”. This was echoed in the very first reviews of the piece after its premiere in London in 1784: “[The] violoncello concerto brought with it (as we expected) the grace, the solemn strength, and the sublimity of music.”
While Haydn D is widely considered the most technically challenging of “classical-period” cello concertos in terms of the dexterity, stamina, and accuracy, it also requires the soloist to carry a dignified demeanour despite its technical perplexities. Qin has candidly shared how he draws a parallel between the challenges of Haydn’s work and our present circumstances,
The dignified and graceful performance by OMM and Qin might seem effortless onscreen, but there were several challenges to overcome during initial rehearsals owing to the unusual spatial configuration: for one, social distancing is counter-intuitive in an ensemble setting. A characteristic of both orchestral and chamber music is active listening and response to other members of the ensemble. However, sitting far apart renders the former impossible, necessitating an entirely different kind of skill and awareness. An additional complication is that the solo cellist is always seated facing away from the orchestra, unlike other instrumental soloists who can occasionally pivot their bodies or heads towards the ensemble. This disorientation can only be overcome by the orchestra’s keen visual sensitivity to the conductor and soloist’s movements, as relying on hearing would often result in a delay. Hence, we see Chan and Qin make noticeable gestural adjustments, while the ensemble follows their leadership faithfully in tandem.
Meanwhile, revisiting Haydn D also prompted Qin to explore new cadenzas (for instance: first movement, second movement) in performance, and he reached out to Singapore composer Jonathan Shin. In a concerto, the cadenza is an unaccompanied short passage near the end of each movement to showcase the soloist’s virtuosic abilities. In Haydn’s time, the cadenza would normally be written by the soloist, but most cellists today play standard cadenzas. When asked about how he had written the cadenzas, Shin remarks, “I always have my intended performer(s) in mind. I also visualise the end-product from the perspective of the hypothetical audience. For this cadenza I drew on my experience of hearing and watching Li-Wei performing recitals and chamber concerts and concertos, and even in lessons as a pianist for his students (all priceless moments!). The way his bow breathes, his incredible sense of rubato, the largesse of his sound and his fine finesse—I took all of them into account while working on the cadenza.” Half in jest, Qin describes the new cadenzas as “vicious monster[s]”, though they carry both exuberance and idiomatic lyricism characteristic of the composer’s style.
Apart from Shin, this project has also opened opportunities for OMM to collaborate with other local composers such as Lee Jinjun. For this performance, Lee was commissioned to write a special arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 for cello and orchestra. While the Brahms is one of the most frequently referenced “classical music” pieces in popular culture, it originally stands as a four-hand piano work, and is most well-known in Brahms’ very own arrangement for orchestra. Rewriting this for orchestra and solo cello—a notoriously difficult task given the cello’s elusive bass and tenor registers—led Lee to “explore the role of the soloist and the orchestra at different points of the piece, as well as how they interact”. Lee cherishes the opportunity to write these arrangements. “Nothing is more rewarding than hearing an orchestra and a world-class soloist bring orchestrations of these classics to life, even more so after half a year of a lack of concerts,” he says.
In a similar spirit to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance, two other pieces by German composers about foreign places and cultures also feature in the concert, as though to satiate our wanderlust. The concert opens with Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, which was written in 1801 for a ballet about the Greek Titan who steals fire from the Gods and proceeds to enlighten humans through knowledge and art. We are also treated to OMM’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (34:46), commonly referred to as the Italian Symphony as it draws inspiration from the composer’s trip to Naples.
Returning to Haydn’s opening quote, this performance epitomises how ensembles have adapted and innovated during the pandemic in order to bring music to audiences. Perhaps, the dignity and grace of OMM and Qin’s performance will provide a small glimpse into what might be the new normal for Singapore’s art scene – one brimming with elegance, refinement, and charm.
And perhaps, this new normal is all the more meaningful.
Orchestra of the Music Makers presents Albert Tiu Plays Chopin at Esplanade Concert Hall on 22 Aug 2021.
Singaporean conductor Chan Tze Law is Vice-Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore, and Music Director of the award-winning Orchestra of The Music Makers. Chan has collaborated with major orchestras in the Australasian region and recently conducted Singapore’s first-ever production of a Wagner Ring Cycle opera ‘Die Walküre’ at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. His CD recordings have been broadcast on Australia's ABC Classic FM, UK's BBC Radio 3 and featured on Singapore Airlines Krisworld. In 2018, he was awarded the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore’s Artistic excellence award for his contributions to music.
Qin Li-Wei appears all over the world as a soloist and chamber musician, with groups such as the Los Angeles and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras,as well as the Munich, Zurich, and Australian Chamber Orchestras. He performs at international festivals, including the BBC Proms and the Jerusalem Music Festival, and recently debuted with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also made recordings on Universal Music/Decca with Singapore Symphony, on Sony Classical (courtesy of Universal Music) with the Shanghai Symphony, and on ABC Classics with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Rachael recently completed her undergraduate studies in Geography at the University of Oxford and was formerly a cello student at the School of the Arts, Singapore. She hopes to combine her love for the arts and environmental issues to spark conversations about climate change and the Anthropocene.
1 As quoted in A History of Western Music, by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), p. 530.