World Premiere of Emily Koh’s Jia[k] – Evoking a Foodie Paradise in Sound

 Koh, Bartok, Liszt, Schubert: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore,  04.10.2015 (RP)

Koh: Jia[k] for Orchestra (World Premiere)
Bartok: Divertimento for Strings, Sz. 113
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125
Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417


Food is important to Singaporeans. Hawker centers serve up local fare such as prawn noodles, char kway tiao, chicken rice, laksa, mee goreng and other dishes. It never fails to surprise me that if I make mention of the Redhill hawker center near where I live to a Singaporean colleague or friend, he or she will have been there and will know that one particular stall renowned for its  carrot cake (not what you might expect). So if you were a Singaporean living in Boston working on a commission for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, where would you turn for inspiration?  In Emily Koh’s own words, “I found myself thinking of home and all the delicious foods I miss that are unique to Singapore…. All I wanted in the months I spent writing this work was to stuff myself silly on all these delicacies at a local hawker fest.”

The result was Jia[k]. Just ten minutes in length, it is a concerto grosso of sorts with different sections of the orchestra – progressing from brass to strings to woodwinds – conjuring up the smells, sights, sounds and, yes, tastes of a Singapore hawker center. There is a great passage for the double basses, which comes as no surprise since it’s Koh instrument. The jaunty pizzicato solo line played by Guennadi Mouzyka, Principal Double Bass, was heard over the growl of the rest of the section, and evolved into a duet with Karen Yeo, the section’s Fixed Chair. Jia[k] ended abruptly with a snap. A jolt to the ear, just like the fiery chilies in Southeast Asian food can be to the tongue.

Bela Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings followed. Composed in a Swiss chalet in 1939, as Europe was descending into world war, the Divertimento is a surprisingly accessible and light work. Little of the gloom that surrounded Bartok as he fled from his native Hungary to the USA is evident. It posed no challenges to the SSO strings under Kamu’s baton. The acoustics in the recently renovated Victoria Concert Hall are still being fine-tuned, but no further tinkering is necessary when it comes to the strings. They sounded great.

Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto brought Benjamin Grosvenor to the stage. Since he won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition, Grosvenor has become an artist of worldwide renown, performing regularly with the world’s top orchestras and conductors. He is a neat, tidy person, and his playing has the same traits. Grace and control with an elegant tone predominate, but he can be quite dramatic when need be. He really dug into the repeated glissandos that ran from one end of the keyboard to the other. Grosvenor also took advantage of the rather small VCH stage to coordinate closely with the orchestra.  At times there was almost a chamber music-like feel to the performance, no more so than when he was partnering with Ng Pei-Sian, the SSO’s Principal Cello, who was excellent as always. Kamu is at his best bringing structure and clarity to complex works, but a certain Nordic coolness prevailed when some Hungarian dash and flare were in order.

The concert concluded with Schubert’s Fourth Symphony. Only 19 years old when he composed it, Schubert may have chosen a minor key and designated it “Tragic,” but the symphony is nothing of the sort. There are some dark moments, but they are more youthful dramatics than despair. Kamu led the SSO in just what one would expect, a dynamically nuanced, elegant, almost courtly performance. The players captured both the drama and the lyricism of the piece. And once again, the strings bathed the audience in rich, luxurious sound.

Rick Perdian

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