On Passing the Torch and Flying Sparks – T’ang Quartet speaks to TFI

The T’ang Quartet – L-R Han Oh, Wang Zihao, Ang Chek Meng, Ng Yu-Ying,

T’ang Quartet, Singapore’s premier string quartet and the original bad boys of classical string music here, is looking a little different these days. With almost 3 decades of music-making under their belts, the Quartet recently welcomed cellist Wang Zihao after doing the same with violist Han Oh last year. Together with founding members Ng Yu-Ying and Ang Chek Ming, T’ang Quartet roars back onto the scene with their upcoming concert on 22 Aug.

Aileen Tang finds out more about flying sparks and how different the ‘new’ T’ang is.

The Flying Inkpot: With the changes in members, how do you ensure that the original vision of the T’ang Quartet stays the same?

Ang Chek Ming: T’ang Quartet’s vision and mission has always been to bring chamber music to the Singaporean audience and beyond, and the change of members does not change that. In fact we are counting on the new members to carry this torch and pass it on when it’s time!

TFI: Have there been any teething issues getting used to playing with each other?

Chek: The basics of string quartet playing with regard to unanimity of ensemble, intonation and tone production remains the core of the work we do. Therefore, a lot of attention has been on the playing of scales, chords and “stacking” of our voices. The new members have been very much up to the challenge and it has been quite a good couple of months working on these fundamentals. Next we have to start revisiting old repertoire that the quartet has built up over the years, on top of meeting new repertoire for upcoming concerts!

Wang Zihao: Like all other quartets or ensembles, working together both musically and ideologically is not easy. So far we are getting used to playing with each other quickly and there are already some sparks, which makes me foresee even greater things in the future.

TFI: I’m looking forward to fireworks! What surprises and new chemistry can long-time fans look forward to? Are you worried that they will find the new T’ang too unfamiliar?

Chek: This will be the first concert of the “new” T’ang, so we hope our fans will come to listen and give us feedback! The old T’ang signature took years of work and refinement. What we can promise them is a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm to create a new identity!

TFI: How did you decide on the programme for this concert? The 2 works seem to be so different in mood and theme.

Chek: This program is a reflection of the times we are living in. So much news of death and suffering all around us. I think we all need a good dose of humour and faith to help us get through this awful pandemic! The Schubert quartet “Death and the Maiden” represents the adversity we are facing and the Haydn quartet “Joke” represents the resilience of the human spirit!

TFI: Ah yes, very relevant indeed. Well, new quartets that have sprung up over the past few years – like the Concordia Quartet – cite the T’ang Quartet as being their inspiration. What are your views on that and what advice do you have for young chamber groups who are looking to make their mark on the local classical music scene?

Chek: We are so happy for the new and not so new ensembles like the Concordia Quartet, Red Dot Baroque, re:Sound, and of course the Lorong Boys. This was exactly what we hoped for when our pioneering work started 29 years ago! We are glad these groups have taken the plunge to enrich the musical landscape of Singapore! Each of these groups have forged their own identities and we are very happy for them as we recognise the hard work behind all their success!

Much as we are happy to be looked upon as role models, we draw inspiration from these young groups as well!  The only advice we can give is to always serve the music with sincerity and strive for improvement.

TFI: Chek and Yuying, as T’ang’s founding members, how did you decide on who to bring in?

Ng Yu-Ying: Han was really an obvious choice as he has a wealth of experience playing with his string quartet in the United States. We also had the pleasure of having him as our violist while Lionel was on sabbatical about 12 years ago. We knew what he would bring to the table and are very glad he has given up some of his other commitments to join us!

Chek: Zihao was outstanding both in his solo playing and in chamber music while he was a student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. We have been tracking his progress since and have been impressed by his stellar work while he was playing for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. When Leslie announced his retirement, we immediately thought of speaking to Zihao for the position. Again we are very happy and excited to welcome him on board!

TFI: Han and Zihao, what were your first thoughts on being asked to join the T’ang Quartet?

Han Oh: My first thoughts? Honestly, I was both shocked and elated! Shocked that Lionel had retired from the quartet and elated that I have the rare opportunity to build a career making music with some of the best chamber musicians in the region…AGAIN!

Zihao: I was very honored and excited when I was invited because the T’ang quartet has always had an important place in my heart. Then the excitement quickly turned into imagining myself performing with the T’ang quartet, and then the reality – what can I bring to T’ang to bring us a better future?

TFI: Did you both feel any pressure coming in to be part of T’ang?

Zihao: Of course there is pressure – but in a good way!  Changing my role from orchestral musician to quartet musician is a huge difference. But that pressure became the motivation for me to do better.

Han: Not really. I felt quite comfortable from the get-go, knowing well both what to expect and what’s expected from me as I had worked and performed extensively with them from my previous 18-month stint as a full-time performing member 12 years ago.

TFI: Han, How different did it feel coming back to work with T’ang the 2nd time?

Han: The 1st time round, I was a full-time performing and non-teaching member from 2009-2011, playing lots of concerts, festivals and touring abroad frequently to many countries such as Europe, Australia, Macau, and Azerbajian. What’s different this time? Firstly, when I came on board last year, I started taking on teaching duties as Artist Faculty as well as Quartet-in-Residence at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. As this was right after the 2020 Circuit Breaker, there were no overseas tours and almost all of our performances were streamed via the conservatory studio as the entire planet was on lockdown. The upside was that we made good use of that time to get reacquainted artistically with each other. Oh, how we all have grown over the last 12 years! I had lots of fun – through hard work, of course – coming back to both familiar and new perspectives gained by all over the past decade!

TFI: Zihao, how does it feel being the newest one in the Quartet?

Zihao: Being the newest is always not easy and I’m still adjusting myself at the moment. It’s important for me to find the right balance —bringing new ideas while keeping the tradition. Just as what T’ang is doing.

The T’ang Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 33 No.2 “The Joke” and Schubert’s D.810 “Death and the Maiden” on Sun 22 Aug 2021, 7:30pm at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

Tickets are available from Peatix


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