How to Play a Concerto in 20 Days – TFI interviews Albert Tiu and the Orchestra of the Music Makers

Agility of response to a dynamic situation and navigating the precarious balance between flexibility and steadfastness. What may sound like the skillset needed for the newest video game is actually what the arts industry has been challenged with ever since the government unleashed a hurricane of tiered Safe Management Measures (SMMs) in response to Covid-19 which have not only affected numbers and configurations allowed on stage, but the viability of live performances altogether. How has Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) managed all of these, and what has gone into preparing for their upcoming concert with Albert Tiu?

Aileen Tang talks to Tiu and OMM to find out more.

The Flying Inkpot: The arts industry has been on quite a rollercoaster ride over the past few months with renewed restrictions punctuating plans to reopen. How has that been for the OMM management with regard to planning?

OMM: It has certainly been a rollercoaster ride! We have had to adapt to many last-minute changes and pivot accordingly while working with our venue partners to find creative solutions to minimize any artistic or musical compromises. 

However, it has now been one year into making music in the pandemic. We have gotten used to it and are prepared – or even, expect – to deal with changes. 

TFI: Speaking of changes, after OMM’s last live concert – Mahler 4 – in May, you’ve had to cancel one concert in June due to tightened SMMs. How has that affected your musicians and what has the morale been like?

OMM: We had to cancel the planned June 2021 concert which was, surprisingly, our only “casualty” in a year of many changes. We felt it was the right thing to do at that time, as case numbers were rising, while vaccination rates weren’t great yet. While we could have proceeded with our all-strings programme, we felt we had to support the spirit of the tightened measures, and the general direction which the government had set. We are thankful that our musicians were understanding and supportive of the decision. They only asked us, “What’s next?”

TFI: Aside from all-out restrictions of live concerts, it has also been a bit of a numbers game for orchestras, in how many are allowed on stage and how many – if it all – allowed unmasked. It has obviously had an impact on the kind of programmes one can present. How has OMM navigated around this problem?

OMM: To prepare for all these rapidly changing SMMs which have an impact on the total number of performers and crew allowed, and the number of woodwind and brass players, we developed a customised repertoire database which allows us to find pieces which fit within these two parameters fairly quickly, and to develop musically coherent programmes. The restrictions for digital programmes weren’t as strict as that of live concerts, so you can still find our more musically adventurous programmes available on our YouTube channel! However, as Singapore transitions to an endemic Covid-19 situation, we are hopeful that we will be able to involve more musicians of all instrument families in each concert. 

Albert Tiu

TFI: I can’t wait to see a symphony orchestra with full winds and brass on stage again! Albert, you last played with OMM in 2011 and this upcoming concert is 10 years to the month since then! How do you feel about performing alongside this OMM again after a whole decade?

Albert Tiu: Wow, I had not realized that that previous time I played with OMM was exactly 10 years ago to the month! A lot of things have happened since then, but I’m excited to be doing this concert with OMM.

TFI: We heard that Albert was asked to fill in for cellist Qin Li-Wei at very short notice, which means there is a relatively short runway to rehearse for this concert. What’s the story behind that?

OMM: We had to replace half the programme with about 3 weeks’ notice, and we are immensely grateful to Albert for having the courage and willingness to step in at such short notice!

This upcoming concert was our first brush with the ever-changing border restrictions and quarantine measures. When the SMMs tightened back in June as part of the step back into Phase 2 Heightened Alert, it was clear that the original concerto – Saint-Saens’ First Cello Concerto – would require more wind and brass players than allowed, and so we spoke to Qin Li-Wei to re-programme the concerto. Li-Wei shared with us that he had always wanted to play Piazzolla’s Four Seasons, which was written for Violin and String Orchestra. We managed to obtain the necessary rights and approvals, and commissioned Jonathan Shin to arrange it for Cello and Strings. 

Li-Wei was scheduled to perform 5 concerts in early August in Melbourne, and the SHN period was 7 days. Unfortunately, the delta variant resulted in cases in Australia spiking, and Singapore increased the SHN period to 14 days, so this ruled Li-Wei out of this concert. Even more unfortunately, Melbourne also instituted two snap lockdowns, resulting in his concerts there also being canceled. 

AT: It was most definitely a shock to hear about the late replacement for Li-Wei, because of the sudden change in quarantine procedures which made him unavailable for the concert. I’m honoured that Maestro Chan Tze Law asked me, but at the same time, I was initially worried whether 20 days was going to be sufficient time for me to prepare a concerto. After all, at my age, my finger joints are not the most agile, and I sometimes feel that I need the WD-40 oil lubricant to loosen my joints!

TFI: How did the decision to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for this concert come about?

AT: Since the concerto had to be a work for piano and strings, given the current restriction on wind playing, Maestro Chan gave me a choice between Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No.1 and Chopin’s 2nd Concerto. I have never played the Bloch, so I almost immediately chose the Chopin, even if the last time I played it was 22 years ago! I have also been teaching the Chopin quite regularly over the last several years, so it is definitely music that I know quite well. 

TFI: There are still wind and brass restrictions so I understand that an arrangement of the Concerto for piano and strings will be performed instead of Chopin’s original orchestration. 

OMM: Yes, that’s right! And thanks to Chopin’s generally functional approach to orchestral writing, the Concerto still works wonderfully despite the reduced forces. We may certainly miss some brassy bite in the 1st movement’s orchestral tuttis, but it’s unlikely that much else would be missed!  All of Chopin’s trademark lyricism and bravura are still present, and the string orchestra will provide Albert with strong support for him to thrill us with his artistry! 

TFI: Albert, this year, you’ve performed Mozart with the SSO under Hans Graf, Beethoven cello sonatas with Li-Wei, and now Chopin with OMM under Chan Tze Law – all very different programmes with different musicians. How different is your approach to each collaboration?

AT: I always remember this interview that I saw once, of Yo-Yo Ma, in which he was asked what the most important concert he had ever played was. His answer was “the next one!” This absolutely resonated with me. It doesn’t matter how big or small the concert is, whether it is with orchestra, chamber music or a solo recital because the commitment to make it work as best as possible remains the same. A successful collaboration is about agreeing to give and take, so I always keep an open mind. 

TFI: It’s always a joy to watch you in concert, Albert! 

So what does the “New Normal” mean for you as a musician and music educator?

AT: It is a constant challenge to keep up with the “New Normal”, because the restrictions keep changing! Of course, I understand that the situation is always changing, but still, it gets so confusing. At the beginning of 2021, when live concerts were starting to make a comeback in Singapore, the rules allowed for a modest 250 people in the audience – masked, safely distanced, and not talking for the entire duration of the concert. Compare that with bustling restaurants, which at that same time were allowing 8 per group – unmasked when eating as well as talking loudly! Yes, I get it that eating is an essential activity while going to concerts is not, but how does one reconcile these two sets of logic? 

Perhaps the one silver lining of this pandemic is that some concerts are now being live-streamed, which reaches out potentially to more people around the globe.  Our students at the YST Conservatory are benefitting from the exposure of having video productions of their live performances.  

TFI: And how does OMM see the “New Normal” for orchestras such as yourselves?

OMM: The past year has provided us with no little experience dealing with last-minute curveballs! Being agile to adapt and finding the next best solution with little notice would probably be here to stay for quite a while more. The importance of making use of spare time to research and study possible pieces which we can rapidly pivot to if SMMs change, is probably of paramount importance in such uncertain times. 

Albert Tiu plays with Orchestra of the Music Makers, with Chan Tze Law conducting, on Sun 22 Aug 2021 at 3.30pm and 7.30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The programme includes Frederic Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (arranged for Piano and String Orchestra by Kenner and Dombek) and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 12 “Death and the Maiden” (arranged for String Orchestra)

Tickets are available from SISTIC.

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