STILL GOING STRONG
Nothing short of legendary, the T’ang Quartet marks its 25th anniversary this year with a new album and shares the secrets to its longevity 唐四重奏是新加坡演奏界的传奇，25年来以具时代感的形象和对古典乐不懈的实验和探索改写古典四重奏的规则。走过四分之一个世纪，他们仍以四重奏为志业，期望有一天能走进每家每户。
“When it comes to interpreting a musical piece, we are no longer four soloists but a single entity. Playing as a quartet is different from playing as a soloist. Our job is to integrate four musical instruments into one. Whenever one of us has a solo part, the others must play a supporting role to allow the soloist to project.” — Ng Yu-Ying
The T’ang Quartet plays a wide musical repertoire, but one thing it does not do too well is to play by the rules.
The four — first violinist Ng Yu-Ying, second violinist Ang Chek Meng, cellist Leslie Tan and his younger brother, violist Lionel Tan — met as young talented musicians with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). In 1992, they formed a classical string quartet whose unusual name is an amalgamation of their last names. The moniker also plays tribute to the Tang dynasty, widely regarded as the golden age of Chinese culture and civilisation.
A year later, the then-20-somethings caused a stir with a photo shoot in a local entertainment magazine. To shed the conservative image of classical music, the four posed topless with their musical instruments. With their boy-band styling and modern classical repertoire, the four were a breath of fresh air in the concert scene here and quickly gained a following.
They went on to perform String Quartet No. 1, Czech composer Leos Janacek’s musical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. While the predominantly young female audience had been drawn to the concert by the quartet’s hip image, they left entranced by the music, which was inspired by the story of a jealous husband who murdered his wife. The T’ang Quartet had succeeded in its aim of breaking new ground and sharing the joy and appreciation of classical music with a wider audience. In 1999, it began performing professionally as a group.
To mark its 25th anniversary, Singapore’s first professional string quartet has released Trampled Souls, its first album in nine years. The compilation includes an updated rendition of Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1. Leslie Tan, 54, said at the album launch: “We are focused on modern classical music. Somebody’s got to play these outstanding works and pass them down.”
The latest release signifies a retrospective of sorts for the quartet, allowing fans old and new to explore how the group has evolved over time. Over the last 25 years, the quartet has hit one milestone after while being showered with accolades. These include the Artistic Excellence Award (classical) by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 2008 and the Bartok prize by the Wien-Prague-Budapest Sommerakademie in Austria in 2000.
The group has also been invited to perform at famed arts festivals around the world, such as the Edinburgh Art Festival. In 2008, the T’ang Quartet was invited to perform Azerbaijan composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s work, Mugam Sayagi, at a Unesco award ceremony in Paris, where she was named Unesco’s Artist for Peace.
The four have also taken pains to hone their musical craft. Before their professional debut, they enrolled at Rice University in Texas for a two-year master’s programme in 1997.
“We went from poster boys to men,” Lionel Tan, 51, said with a laugh. “We did not want to be liked for our looks. What we care about more is the quality of our music and whether we are always growing and improving.” digital projections to present a multi-sensory feast. The European premiere took place in Edinburgh and the production was then staged in Spain before touring Scotland later that year.
These creative partnerships are vital to the group’s survival, said Leslie Tan. “We can create new sparks with our music only if we make friends with collaborators from all creative disciplines.” But Ng, 49, noted: “With this constant experimentation and innovation, we also have to constantly remind ourselves why we are doing this, which is to promote chamber music to a greater audience.”
The four, who taught at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute from 2001 to 2005, are currently the resident quartet at the National University of Singapore Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.
“We are experiencing a second wind of sort. We want to move our focus back to performances,” said Leslie Tan, who added that the group has planned a series of performances to tie in with the release of its new album.
Besides the dedication to excellence, the four also attribute their success and longevity to a spirit of innovation. Leslie Tan said: “We are willing to try any genre. We do not exclude certain types of music simply because they are not our specialty.”
In the last 25 years, they have worked and performed with musicians from other genres such as electronica and jazz, giving chamber music a new spin. They also collaborate regularly with talent from other creative fields, such as those in dance, theatre, fashion design and even computer programming.
In 2007, the T’ang Quartet created a multimedia work called Optical Identity with Glasgow-based Theatre Cryptic. Commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival, the production melded string music with installation art and
The four acknowledged that they made it big here, in a way, after proving themselves on the world stage. For instance, Leslie Tan shared that they were invited to be Yong Siew Toh Conservatory’s resident quartet after someone from the music school saw them perform at Tanglewood. “Having said that, you should also build a strong foundation in your home country. You can shine overseas only if you are good enough. We cannot blame our country for not giving us opportunities,” he added.
Singapore’s multicultural, East-meets-West society has also given the quartet a distinctive edge. Said Lionel Tan: “Some music critics have said that we play the music of a Czech composer even better than the Czechs. I guess this is because we understand where the barriers and lines are when it comes to crossing cultural boundaries.” His older brother added: “We have benefited from the rojak Singaporean culture. This has made us more flexible when interpreting cultures that are not necessarily ours.”
After working together for about half their lives, the four have long learnt to operate in sync.
Said Ng: “When it comes to interpreting a musical piece, we are no longer four soloists but a single entity. Playing as a quartet is different from playing as a soloist. Our job is to integrate
four musical instruments into one.” This, he added, means they enjoy a complementary working relationship. “Whenever one of us has a solo part, the others must play a supporting role to allow the soloist to project.”
Asked about the group’s plans in the next 25 years, Ang, 48, quipped: “TQ50? ” On a more serious note, he shared how the quartet enjoys performing live and interacting with the audience. But he noted: “As we grow older, we prefer a crowd of about 200 over 800, and to play at more intimate venues.”
This was why they picked the Armenian Church in Hill Street as the venue for their first public performance of Trampled Souls on July 30. “We chose to play there in order to explore small performance spaces as alternatives to concert halls,” said Ang.
Leslie Tan has more ambitious plans. Given the pace of technological advances, he believes a hologram performance by the T’ang Quartet might not be a pipe dream. “Click on an image and the four of us can appear in your home in the form of a hologram and perform ‘live’ for you. That way, the T’ang Quartet will be able to enter everyone’s living room.”
在国际舞台找寻机会，得到肯定和奖项，不断为唐四重带来声誉。他们曾获提名古典音乐表演领域最富权威与盛名的大奖，与许多优秀乐团一起角逐英国皇家爱乐协会音乐大奖。他们持续受邀到世界著名艺术节表演，如卡贝拉室内音乐节、爱丁堡艺术节、西班牙现代音乐节，足迹遍布亚洲欧美各地。2008年，他们还应当代著 名阿塞拜疆作曲家阿里查德之邀，在联合国教科文组织一项任命阿里查德为“和平艺术家”的仪式上，演奏阿里查德的作品“Mugam Sayagi”。