An Evening of Romantic Art Songs

Walking into an adjoining Yamaha showroom has me observing a bespectacled man engrossed in perfecting a section of his music. He is so pre-occupied that it took him awhile to realize that the journalist is standing not too far away from him. A warm greeting ensues from Kok-Ting Chong, the pianist, and we got down to serious music of talking music, especially Viardot and art songs. Cecilia Yap Keat Chee, the soprano, is on her way here.

Kok-Ting explains, “The repertoire for this particular Artist Platform performance emerged out of my having discovered this great soprano-composer, Pauline Viardot. She was a famous and influential 19th century singer in Europe who is not only famed for her vocal prowess but also for her compositions that were of high quality and very much sensitive to the needs of the voice. When I first heard the performance of one of her works, I fell in love with the beauty of her compositions and henceforth strived to bring her works out to the Malaysian public.

Viardot works very closely with the composers that she sings for and many of them actually composed the music for her voice, composers like Saint-Saens, Bizet, Donizetti, Bellini and Schumann. She made her debut at the age of 17, singing the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello“.

“Besides the opera houses, Pauline also sang in salons, especially her own salon, where intellectuals and artistically inclined people would gather to have tête-à-têtes on issues of the day. It was not only the purity of her voice, but her presence and the intelligence in her singing that commands the attention of the audience. Unlike arias and operas, art songs require a less dramatic way of declaiming, a more delicate and sensitive handling of the voice. It means being more attentive to each subtle nuance of the vocals, as every enunciation of a word and note is very important. Therefore, details have a more profound influence here than in a big opera. The accompaniment for the art songs, are very much in a class of their own. Unlike arias and operas where the accompaniment is relegated to the background, for art songs, they are needed to go hand-in-hand with the vocals, hence enhancing the listening experience and providing the needed edge,” he concludes.

Whilst the first half of the programme features mainly better-known arias and Italian music next to Pauline Viardot’s own compositions, the second half has music that is more sophisticated, with beautiful harmonies, as well as strong Spanish influences.

“Incidentally, Pauline is a Spaniard and she wanted to introduce these songs to the salons in France where she was born. Hence, one gets songs like the Habanera, a kind of Spanish dance composition by Ravel, the Bolero by Gounod which was dedicated to Pauline, and the Sevillana by Massenet.”

“One aim of the Artists Platform is to introduce new works to the public, and art songs are one neglected genre that I would like to share with others. I have been working with these songs since my college days in Europe and was influenced by my teachers into learning more about these works. It is sad that such good quality compositions by Viardot have been so neglected. Whilst searching through the Internet, I discovered a publisher who publishes at least 60% of her works and I hope to introduce them bit by bit over here. Art songs cover such a wide compass of musical compositions, both in Europe and Asia. The Chinese have their own versions of art songs, and so do the Indonesians. I hope to include these in time to come.”

“I got to know Cecilia 4 years ago and found a person as adventurous as myself to work with. We have collaborated in the past in various musical schemes, including If My Verses Have Wings produced by Dama House. I feel that to work together with a singer, you need to have a close working rapport where you could feel her every need and be sensitive to the subtle fluctuations of her voice. This is not the kind of thing that you could get from just 1 or 2 rehearsals. Such co-operation needs to be ongoing for the chemistry to work.”

When asked about the languages she has been singing in and the difficulties encountered, Cecilia, who has been listening to our conversation, demurely replies, “I sing in Chinese, Italian, French, and Spanish. Having studied voice in the St. Cecilia Conservatory of Music in Rome, I can speak Italian. There is a linguistic similarity between Italian and French and Latin so it wasn’t hard picking up the other two.”

“We also have friends who help to coach us in unfamiliar words. For instance, the inspiration I have for Melodie du Soir was from a couple now in Beijing. Melodie is the French equivalent of art song,” Kok-Ting adds.

When asked about Viardot’s proficiency as a composer, both Kok-Ting and Cecilia agree that Cecilia’s experience as a singer gave her a deeper understanding of the needs of a vocalist and in linking the accompaniment with the voice. They were unanimous on the fact that the simpler the song seems, the harder it is to achieve technical proficiency.

As if to add weight to their words, Kok-Ting and Cecilia performed two of their awe-inspiring repertoire for the interviewer. For those who would like to catch our Malaysian soprano who may very well be the next Cecilia Bartoli and to listen and learn from a professional accompanist who knows his stuff, don’t forget to get your tickets for this Saturday!


First Published: 13.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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