Playing at the Same Frequency – TFI Interviews Ng Pei-Sian and Joshua Tan | The Flying Inkpot
With the removal of capacity restrictions on and off stage, Singapore audiences are seeing a return to the concert programmes of old, with some much-missed pieces for large orchestral forces being offered again. Cellist Ng Pei-Sian headlines Orchestra of the Music Makers’ (OMM) concert, led by conductor Joshua Tan, with arguably the most well-loved pieces from the cello concerto and symphonic repertoire – Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2.
Aileen Tang chats with them to learn about their musical partnership, and why these classics never grow old.
The Flying Inkpot: The two of you have known each other for many years, having been colleagues at SSO and worked together numerous times. What is the most rewarding thing about working with each other?
Ng Pei-Sian: I think one of the most important attributes about Joshua is his honesty – never harsh or abrasive but always to the point. His wonderful musicianship and humble nature are good reasons why we have maintained our close friendship all these years.
Joshua Tan: The most rewarding part in working with [Pei-Sian] is just the very natural and spontaneous music-making that makes sense and stays within the confines and boundaries of what is acceptable. A lot of it just falls into place.
TFI: Is that because you know each other so well?
JT: No, not exactly. Even right at the beginning, there are people like that – whereby the language just comes. It’s like you know where the river flows, how fast or slow it’s going to go. You know every turn of the road, even though you may be kind of blindfolded or you’ve never taken that path before. You know exactly where it leads. You know exactly how steep that incline or decline is going to be. Everything just comes naturally and it makes sense. So it’s very easy to work with [Pei-Sian] because we’re at the same frequency. And there are no added histrionics or any exaggerated self-expression. I guess for Pei-Sian and I, we are kind of on the same page where the composer’s intent comes first.
TFI: Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is one of the most well-loved works in the cello repertoire. Pei-Sian, what exactly is so appealing about it?
NPS: It’s symphonic in scope and takes the listener on a journey of epic proportions. It’s all about wonderful melodies and dramatic storytelling. Although the spotlight is firmly on the cello, we are treated to prominent solos from the orchestra – notably the opening horn solo and also a climactic moment in the last movement when the concertmaster joins the cello in a soaring and triumphant duet.
TFI: What has been your most memorable performance of it?
NPS: I will always hold Rostropovich’s live performance as the most memorable. The intensity and emotional power he communicated in the coda is just incredible and moving.
TFI: I know a lot of people are just as excited to hear Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 as they are to hear Pei-Sian play the Dvořák. Joshua, in your opinion, what is it about Rachmaninov 2 that is so timelessly appealing to audiences?
JT: Oh well, for me, it’s very clear and straightforward. Why it’s such a popular symphony will continue to be simply because it is a very sincere expression of feelings by a human being. And it’s not a cerebral work – the composer did not set up to do a mathematical formula, so to speak. Rachmaninov himself said that he composes because he just wants to express his feelings and I think it’s this sincerity that cuts across time. And it’s what you feel when you hear this music and the emotions that you experience when you listen to this music – whether or not you’ve experienced them before.
TFI: One doesn’t have to think so hard.
JT: This is not a piece of music where you need to understand classical music. This is about the human experience, and that’s why people keep coming back to it and why it’s so popular.
TFI: Have you had any particularly memorable experiences with this symphony?
JT: I think every performance of the symphony is memorable. Although it’s quite popular, it’s not that often programmed, so every performance of this is quite precious because this music is so well-loved not only by the audience, but by orchestra musicians as well. For me, it’s quite difficult because there is a great expectation!
TFI: I love the fact that we’re getting to hear works like Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 again! But do you think audience’s expectations have changed after 2 years of shorter programmes?
JT: I don’t think so. Firstly, we had those reduced programmes because there was a reduced audience size as well – most people were not attending concerts. To be honest, it’s not been that long because it’s just two years in the grand scheme of things. People would have gotten used to just a one-hour programme without any intermission, and perhaps some people may prefer that. But I think for most people, longer programmes are still better bang for your buck! But I think shorter programmes have certainly provided us a lot more insight into programming, and there are certain concerts and programmes that actually work a lot better with this format. So going forward, I don’t think we really have to stick to the traditional format of overture, concerto, intermission, and then a big symphony.
TFI: Organisations have had to experiment with a lot of different configurations because of what would fit within the restrictions, but I agree that has also allowed us to see more possibilities for programming even though now we can go back to the so-called standard format.
NPS: As an audience member, I personally enjoyed the shorter concerts and roomy seating! But judging from our recent sell-out performances, it seems people are really enjoying the full symphonic programmes and international soloists! I couldn’t be happier that the desire and support for live music in Singapore is robust and thriving once again.
TFI: Pei-Sian, you’ve been involved in some exciting collaborations lately! How has working with Charlie Lim and The Nanyang Collective, for example, had an impact on your personal perspective of music making? Has it changed the way you approach your orchestral work? Do you see your projects as distinct or just extensions of “Pei-Sian the cellist”?
NPS: As the Principal Cellist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for the past 12 years, I have witnessed a sea change in Singapore’s performance arts landscape – the growth we’re all experiencing with the best of our own local artists making new lanes and spaces for the arts to live and excel. I feel my role has evolved. I want to make myself more available to support our talent in Singapore by contributing in new and creative ways. The only way forward is to keep growing.
Tickets for Ng Pei-Sian plays Dvořák • Rach 2 are available from SISTIC
Sat 28 May 7.30pm & Sun 29 May 5pm
SOTA Concert Hall
Joshua Tan, Conductor
Ng Pei-Sian, Cello
Orchestra of the Music Makers
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK – Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
SERGEI RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27