Thursday, January 20, 2011

He's back, all is forgiven

I got tickets to Melvyn Tan's recital without even knowing what he was going to play. But I figured that one couldn't go wrong with his repertoire of Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy. Turns out the programme was heavy on Chopin -- possibly a hangover of the bicentennial last year -- but that's OK too.

I figured that if an ex-Singaporean took such pains and so long to finally stage a concert here, then the least I can do is to go to it. Tan was the Singapore-born emigre who stirred up public controversy when he returned five few years ago and was hauled up for evading national service (two years of military service compulsory for all male citizens). Tan had left the country at a young age and never returned to serve NS. When he did come back -- to see an ageing mother -- he was above 40 and no longer eligible for NS. More importantly, he had given up his citizenship in 1978. Still, he got the book thrown at him and was fined. It was a tremendous media circus, which gave rise to some rather voiceful public opinions. Most people (at least, those who told the media so) felt he deserved the fine. Some pointed out there's also a jail term for evading NS. A letter to the press opined that there is no justification at all for NS absconders to be allowed to return at all. I suppose that last person wasn't at the concert last night. I personally think it was a huge case of the Singaporean dog in a manger ethos -- as I have suffered (2 years of NS), so must everybody else.

Now back for his first public performance (there was a private one last year) in the land of his birth, Tan was lauded as a son of Singapore, with a comment in the programme notes going as far as saying that he is "without a doubt the best pianist that Singapore has ever produced". Which is only accurate in as far as he was produced, ie born, in Singapore. But what did Singapore have to do with his success as a concert pianist?
Aside from his first piano teacher in his childhood -- and we all had one of those -- he probably owes his success to his parents who had the foresight to recognise his potential as a pianist, the gumption to acknowledge that he could make a living from the arts (especially 20 years ago), and -- more importantly -- the means to send him overseas for training.

There were more young children than usual in the concert hall. And there were a good many students in school uniform, it was a school day after all. Probably piano students, all. Which probably also means there must have been quite a few piano teachers in the audience too. I wonder what mine would have made of Tan's posture. He slouched between movements, hunched as he played, his spine curving more and more as he progressed through the piece until he ended it, nose almost at the keyboard. The piano teacher I had as a child used to stand behind me, and knee me in the small of my back to make me sit up straight.

But oh, the recital was wonderful. Lyrical, technical mastery. He gave three encores to a standing ovation from almost the entire hall, which even THE Berlin Phil didn't get. The second encore was a finger exercise (Czerny? Scarlatti?) that I remember having to hammer out endlessly. I never would have thought that it could make a recital piece, and such a sweet, charming one too.

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