Monday, 22 September, 2014

Published May 30, 2014
Performing arts for beginners
Don't quite enjoy performing arts as much as you'd like to? The newly revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts and its pre-event The OPEN have several performances and talks that give valuable introductions to the various performing arts. HELMI YUSOF takes a look at its programmes for classical music, Greek tragedy and contemporary dance.
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Classic appeal: Greek tragedies, like 'Oedipus Rex', has been translated and played around the world for centuries. 'The Chorus; Oedipus' (left) transforms the 2,500-year-old tragedy into a musical.

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20th-century classical music 101

IF you're a novice in classical music appreciation, there's no better way to expand your knowledge quickly - and pleasurably - than to attend the excellent series of concerts given by the London Sinfonietta.

Last year, the London Sinfonietta gave a much-acclaimed series of concerts at London's Southbank Centre called The Rest Is Noise, a title taken from the 2007 best-seller written by The New Yorker's music critic, Alex Ross.

The concerts took the audiences through a sweeping odyssey of classical music in the 20th century, from Debussy to Prokofiev to Stockhausen to Takemitsu. The tour de force performances so impressed Singapore International Festival of the Arts director Ong Keng Sen that he persuaded the sinfonietta to bring the concerts to Singapore.

Owing to the exigencies of time, the ensemble will condense its 12-episode series into just four concerts here. But these four concerts, combined with an optional pre-show talk by eminent speakers, will provide an excellent overview of the development of Western classical music in the last century.

Gillian Moore, Southbank Centre's head of classical music, says: "The 20th century was a period of unprecedented change and progress. The schisms and arguments about music and art were, if anything, greater than before and it was inevitable that music should change radically. This is music which responded very clearly to the complex times in which people were living."

The first of the four concerts here features works by seven composers including Schoenberg, Debussy and Stravinsky. Schoenberg, who sought to develop the Viennese classical tradition of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms at the start of the 20th century, was very much influenced by the alienation and abstraction of art in the early 1900s. Stravinsky, on the other hand, adopted a more eclectic form of modernism, taking in influences from folk music, jazz and the febrile artistic atmosphere of early 20th-century Paris. His sensational 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring caused a near-riot among audiences.

The second concert in the Singapore series focuses on Shostakovich and Prokofiev, two extraordinary Russian composers who worked under the gaze of Stalin and the Soviet regime's strict view of art. Yet the duo managed to created some enduring masterpieces that often carried a hidden message for their public.

The third concert looks at music after World War II, where a new breed of composers, including Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti and Berio, all of whom had experienced the war, tried to wipe the slate clean with a radical style of idealistic modernism for a brave new world. Reich, Schnittke and Riley, who produced music in reaction to the previous group of men, will also be featured.

The fourth and final concert looks at music towards the end of the century. By then, music had become unencumbered by dogma, with minimalist-influenced sounds existing side by side with music that had its roots in more complex modernism. The period also saw the rise of major Asian composers in Western concert halls. Hence, the fourth concert will feature the works of Ades and McMillan alongside Toru Takemitsu and Unsuk Chin.

All four concerts will be performed by the London Sinfonietta in collaboration with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra.

Asked if she had any tips for the novice listener, Ms Moore says: "I'd strongly suggest attending the pre-concert talks which will be given by our specially chosen experts. However, in the end, it's great to just to leave your preconceptions at the door and just experience the music in the moment, trusting your instincts and enjoying the sensuality of the live sounds."

The four-part series of concerts, titled Listen To The 20th Century, will play at SOTA Concert Hall on Sept 3, 5, 6 and 7 at different times. Tickets from $40 to $80 available from Sistic

Greek tragedy 101

PERFORMED 2,500 years ago, classic Greek theatre may be one of the earliest forms of theatre known to man. Yet, many of its plays are still widely staged today - possibly second only to Shakespeare in popularity.

Part of its enduring appeal is that the stories are taken from Greek mythology and seeks to explore the big, unanswerable questions concerning God, religion, human suffering, crime and punishment. Today, theatre troupes and schools around the world - including, in recent months, School of the Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts - are reprising plays from its classical canon.

Indeed, both the Singapore International Festival of Arts and its pre-event The OPEN feature a contemporary production of a Greek tragedy in each of their programmes - and both productions coincidentally hail from South Korea, where Greek tragedies have a following.

The first, MEDEA on media, is a hip and hypnotic re-telling of the tragedy of Medea. Medea was the wife of Jason, who led the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. When Jason leaves Medea for another woman, Medea retaliates by killing their children. The bloodbath at the end of the play almost never fails to shock audiences.

MEDEA on media's director Kim Hyun-Tak of Theatre Group Seongbukdong Beedolkee says: "For me, the virtue of Greek tragedy lies in the fact that it touches the fundamental feeling of being human, regardless of age or time. That's why I could deconstruct MEDEA in an exceptionally contemporary way.

"In my version, I'm dividing the tragedy into nine fragments, and each scene is presented in a special media. For example, the dispute with Jason is presented in a talkshow format, while the banishment by Creon (Jason's father-in-law) is described in motion picture format."

The other Greek tragedy set to be staged here is The Chorus; Oedipus. Oedipus was a Greek king who was abandoned as a child and did not know his real parents. When he grows up, he unknowingly gets into a fight with his real father and kills him, and then falls in love with his mother and marries her. When he discovers the truth about his life, Oedipus takes his mother's pins and pierces his eyes in shame.

In director Seo Jae-Hyung's hands, Oedipus has been transformed into a modern musical. He says: "We have four pianists on stage playing music composed by Choe Uzong that skilfully blends elements of folk songs, operas, musicals and pop songs. I also use oral sounds made by the actors and various sound effects to augment the dramatic tensions."

Reflecting on the appeal of Greek tragedies, Seo notes: "In 2011, when The Chorus; Oedipus premiered in Korea, there were four Greek tragedies being staged at different theatres. I am not sure why so many directors felt the urge to stage Greek plays. But I do know that Oedipus is a truly compelling tragedy that all directors want to delve into; Oedipus marks the birth of all tragic plays."

'MEDEA on media' will be staged at NAFA Studio Theatre from July 3-5 at 8pm. Tickets at $35 from Sistic.

'The Chorus; Oedipus' will be staged at Victoria Theatre from Aug 21-23 at 8pm. Both productions are in Korean with English surtitles. Tickets at $45 from Sistic

Contemporary dance 101

IF you want to appreciate contemporary dance, you might want to begin at the very beginning - with Martha Graham.

Graham is known as the mother of modern dance. She danced and choreographed for 70 years, and left behind a legacy of intense, angular dances that continue to thrill dancers and dance lovers. Her cutting-edge works firmly established modern dance as an alternative to classical ballet, and for that and other reasons she is often also called the "Picasso of dance".

Though she died in 1991 at the age of 96, her spirit is very much alive in dancer and female impersonator Richard Move. Since 1996, Move has been donning Graham-like costumes and dancing her famous works such as Lamentation and Clytemnestra to much acclaim.

Next month, Move will make an appearance at The OPEN to talk about Graham's legacy and perform her iconic solos. There will also be a screening of Ghostlight, a documentary on Graham starring him as the dancer.

Then, in August, Move will return to perform Martha@The 1963 Interview in which he re-enacts Graham's famous interview where she candidly discussed her life and career.

Move, who's based in New York, says: "Graham invented contemporary dance. She developed her technique in about 25 years and it is as complex as that of classical ballet, which was developed over several hundred years with the contributions of countless persons.

"At a time when people expected dance to be light entertainment, Graham shocked them with works that reflected society's fear and uncertainty of life during the Great Depression and the culture's obsession with machinery. For the first time, a woman is expressing her individual spirit through dance against a conformist society."

Move says Graham saw herself as "more Asian than American". She was a fond collector of Asian art and slept at home on a Chinese opium bed.

She also collaborated with Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi for her stage and set designs to revolutionise the way the audiences experienced dance.

Her individualism, says Move, influenced every choreographer after her. "Some choreographers, like Merce Cunningham who danced with her, reacted against her aesthetic and, in turn, forever changed and influenced the art form. Yet every choreographer and theatre artist today is indebted to her. It's a lineage that's all traceable to her."

'Richard Move@The OPEN' will take place on June 27 and 28 at 8pm at the Asian Civilisations Museum. There will also be a screening of 'Ghostlight', a documentary on Graham starring Move as the dancer, on June 29 at 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road. A standard

OPEN ticket at $45 from Sistic gives you access to these and 30 other events.

Subsequently, Move will perform 'Martha@1963 Interview' on Aug 21, 22 and 23 at 8pm at SOTA Drama Theatre. Tickets from $30 to $50 from Sistic