By Huang Lijie
Two classical musicians, pianist Li Churen and mezzo-soprano Jade Tan, are shedding the straitjacket of convention and staging a classical music concert at an unlikely venue – the Zouk nightclub, Capital.
The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music alumni are candid about their intention: to try and reverse the tide of grey and white hair they see when they look out into the audience at their shows.
But don’t mistake their countercultural takeover of the nightclub as copping a move from the hipster playbook. The duo, passionate about the enduring beauty of classical music, is earnest in finding new ways to connect audiences today with the songs.
Adamant about not dumbing it down, they have instead chosen to experiment with new formats of staging to “present the spirit of the music in the best way”, says Tan. This means, for example, creating an intimate setting by performing among the audience, with the piano in the middle of the dance floor, and using mood lighting and short dramatic recitations for effect.
The choice of music is also important and they have selected three songs – Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, Claude Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Together, they paint an imagined and evocative scene, apropos to their performance venue: A clubgoer, intoxicated and lovelorn, recalls the innocence of puppy love, and dreams of finding peace by being one with nature.
To help the audience better appreciate the songs sung in German and French, the duo has come up with brief monologues that will open each piece, inspired by the poetry that the songs are based on. The Alternberg Lieder, for example, is derived from texts by the Viennese poet Peter Altenberg, which speak of the turbulent condition of a soul pining for love.
While it sounds on paper that the duo has a winning formula to woo audiences to experience classical music anew, they are aware that scepticism continues to abound, not least from their own quarter. “We get that from the older crowd,” says Tan. “They ask, ‘Are you sure?’ and say, ‘If not for you, I’m not stepping into a club.’”
They wouldn’t, however be the first to spark a “scandal”. When the Altenberg Lieder premiered in 1913 in the revered concert hall, Wiener Musikverein, the audience was so shocked by its experimental sounds that they broke out into a riot, earning the concert the moniker “Skandalkonzert”.
Fingers crossed, it will be riotous applause that erupts at the duo’s show.