STILL GO­ING STRONG

ZbBZ (Singapore) - - IN FOCUS - TEXT LIM FONG WEI / 林方伟 PHO­TOG­RA­PHY 龙国雄

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.”

唐四重奏总不按牌理出招。1992年,洪泽民(第二小提琴)、黄毓颖(第一小提琴)、陈国安(中提琴)及陈国平(大提琴)四位才华横溢的年轻演奏者离开让他们相知相识的新加坡交响乐团,自组四重奏,并以成员姓氏英文字母拼成“唐四重奏”,向中华文化鼎盛的唐朝致敬。

一年后,20几岁的他们提着琴,赤裸着上身,展示青春的肉体,登上本地娱乐杂志。在狮城,从来没人像他们那样挑战着古典乐表演者的形象和定位。他们虽以男乐团的形象出道,玩的却是冷门的20世纪现代古典音乐。

杂志出街后,他们在本地一场演奏会上演奏现代捷克作曲家雅那切克改编自俄国文豪托尔斯泰中篇小说《克鲁采奏鸣曲》的《第一号弦乐四重奏》。让团员最难忘的是,现场有美眉粉丝被他们的男神形象吸引,牵着气球前来观赏,最后反被他们的音乐倾倒,屏着呼吸听完这首刻画怒夫谋杀妻子的乐曲。

今年唐四重奏庆祝成立25周年,相隔九年推出他们的最新专辑《被践踏的灵魂》,里头就收录了雅那切克这首乐曲。大提琴手陈国平在小型发布演奏会上说:“我们专注于现代古典乐,这些杰出的创作总要有后人来诠释传世。”旧曲新奏象征团队的一个回顾前瞻,让新旧粉丝聆听四分之一世纪以后,他们的蜕变与成熟。

要维持25年的辉煌需要四人共进退,一起 不断进修,攀爬一级一级的高峰。他们在90年代曾暂停表演,一同到美国莱斯大学深造,两年硕士毕业后再回归。中提琴手陈国安笑说他们是“从海报男孩变大人,不想只靠外形被人爱戴。我们更在乎的是音乐的品质,还有我们有没有一直进步、成长。”

第二小提琴手洪泽民说,和许多流行和摇滚乐队一样,“我们一年曾有四个月在国外巡回表演,参加国际比赛,在台上燃烧自己,是很身心劳累的。”为了不让团队倦怠,2001至2005年,他们在波士顿大学Tan­gle­wood学院执教,现在则是新加坡国立大学杨秀桃音乐学院的驻校四重奏乐团。陈国平说:“我们现在又要把重心放回表演,会配合新专辑展开一系列演奏会。”

一个乐团,更何况是冷门的古典乐队,要常青25年极为不容易,除了精益求精外,他们把成功与长寿归功于唐四重奏的实验与突破精神。陈国平说:“我们什么音乐都愿意尝试,不会因为某种音乐不是我们的专长而排除在外。”

这25年来,他们曾跟电子乐、爵士乐、华乐等不同类别的音乐人合作、同台表演,让室内乐擦出另类火花。他们也常跨界跟剧场、舞蹈、电脑程序编写员、时装设计师等不同创意领域的人合作。2007年,唐四重奏受邀与英国Theatre Cryp­tic携手创作《光学身份》多媒体作品,将弦乐结合电脑科技、装置艺术、数码图像现场投影等,献上超越音乐的多重感官飨宴。

陈国安说:“我们的音乐就是要跟各种人 ‘做朋友’,才能不断创造新意。”第一小提琴手黄毓颖补充:“在不断的实验和创新中,我们又得时时提醒自己不忘初心,融入新元素始终是为了向普罗大众推广室内乐。”

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”。

陈国平说:“我们确实是在国际舞台证明自己后才红回新加坡的。有趣的是,杨秀桃音乐学院负责人就是在波士顿大学Tan­gle­wood学院看到我们的演出,才邀我们来当驻校四重奏的。话虽如此,但你也得在自己的国家扎下深厚根基,有足够实力才能到海外发光,不能怪国家没给我们足够的发挥机会。”

新加坡多元文化的特色,东西文化的交融,也赋予他们与众不同的特质。陈国安说:“有乐评赞我们比捷克人更懂得诠释捷克作曲家的音乐。我想这是因为我们懂得跨越文化的藩篱和界线。”陈国平补充:“我们从新加坡人的ro­jak(混杂)文化特性中获益,让我们对异己文化的诠释变得灵活,更有弹性。”

25年的合作,也让四个性格迥然不同的男人在音乐里合为一体,天衣无缝。黄毓颖说:“诠释乐曲时,我们不再是四个独奏者,而得连成一体。四重奏跟个人演奏不同,我们的专业就是要把四把乐器融为一把乐器。这意味着我们的关系是相辅相成的——有时其中一个有独奏部分,得以突出与发挥,其他人就扮演扶持的角色。这发挥和扶持的关系在一首曲子里,是不断地在交替更换的。”

走过四分之一世纪,问他们对下一个25年有什么寄望。洪泽民笑说:“TQ50?我们现在只专注7月30日在亚美尼亚教堂的公开演奏会。我们 毕竟是一支弦乐四重奏,喜欢和现场听众互动,始终以现场演奏为表演重心。随着年龄增长,我们的精力也有所改变,已不太能面对800多名观众表演,反而比较喜欢200多人,较为亲密的场地。这次选择阿美尼亚教堂,就是要探讨大演奏厅以外的另类小型表演空间。”

若25年后的科技允许,陈国平不排除推出唐四重奏全息投影(holo­gram)。“点击一个图,我们四个人就能以三维图像出现在你家里,为你‘现场’表演。这么一来,唐四重奏就能走入每家每户的客厅了。”

“四重奏跟个人演奏不同,我们的专业就是要把四把乐器融为一把乐器。这意味着我们的关系是相辅相成的——有时其中一个有独奏部分,得以突出与发挥,其他人就扮演扶持的角色。这发挥和扶持的关系在一首曲子里,是不断地在交替更换的。”——黄毓颖

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