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Intimate and very special: The T’ang Quartet celebrates 25 years

by July 29, 2017 General

The T'ang Quartet at the grounds of the Armenian Church. The ensemble will celebrate its silver jubilee with a concert there. — Picture by Aloysius Lim/TODAYThe T’ang Quartet at the grounds of the Armenian Church. The ensemble will celebrate its silver jubilee with a concert there. — Picture by Aloysius Lim/TODAYSINGAPORE, July 29 — Back in 1992, four young musicians from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra would meet up during their free time and jam in one of the rehearsal studios at the Victoria Concert Hall.

Now, 25 years later, the T’ang Quartet — violinists Ang Chek Meng and Ng Yu Ying, cellist Leslie Tan and violist Lionel Tan — are still jamming away, although they have since graduated from rehearsal studios to performing in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world.

Not many local music groups stay active for that long. The T’ang Quartet didn’t set out to achieve longevity either.

“I don’t think we started out (thinking about) how long we were going to last, but we’re very happy to be still together and fortunate that we’ve had a fruitful journey so far,” said Ang.

“I never thought of being in a professional string quartet,” said Lionel Tan. “You just do it because it’s like, ‘this is fun’. And then there’s the first concert and that’s not bad, and you go ‘let’s do a second one’ and a third…”

“We were young and foolish,” quipped Ng. “Now, we’re just old and foolish.”

Marking the occasion

To mark their silver jubilee, the T’ang Quartet have decided against holding a mega-blowout of a concert at the Esplanade or Victoria Concert Hall.

Instead, the band has decided to stage a small concert tomorrow (July 30) at a venue in Singapore that is not normally known for holding concerts: The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator along Armenian Street.

“I went there to take a look, just to see what it was like, and it’s a unique place,” said Lionel Tan. “It’s circular inside and I thought this would be a good place for a concert. It may be a bit challenging, sound-wise, but let’s see.”

The concert will also be the showcase for their latest album, Trampled Souls.

“There’s nothing autobiographical about the title!” said Leslie Tan. “It’s not like we’re trampled musicians, beaten by society … We have had our struggles — it’s never been easy being a musician in Singapore, but we’ve managed to be here for 25 years.”

The title, said Lionel, comes from the songs in the album. The “trampled” part, he said, is from one of the pieces, Lament In The Trampled Garden by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich.

“But (Leos) Janacek’s composition, Kreutzer Sonata, is also about the oppression of women, hence ‘trampled souls’. And (Aulis) Sallinen’s piece had the word Funeral in the title (Some Aspects Of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March). So, for me, it kind of fits together.”

“(The title) also helps our audience to have a sense of what to expect,” quipped Ang. “When you see Trampled Souls, you know you’re not going to get fluff.”

25 years of T’ang

While it may seem a little odd to mark a milestone anniversary in such a simple way, the ensemble has never followed convention.

As part of their attempt to popularise classical music, the group eschewed the conservative image commonly associated with their occupation, and opted for a more fashion forward look. In 1993, for example, they gained much attention from the media and the public, when they took off their shirts to pose for a photo shoot for 8 Days.

Musically, the group also eschewed playing the usual “popular” classics. Their concerts and albums, for example, were all curated based on certain themes.

“Our first album, The Art Of War, had a theme to it; Made In America, that’s a themed album. Even our concerts have themes. It’s never a case of each of us saying, ‘Oh, I like to play this song’ and we just put the four ‘I like to play’ pieces to make a concert,” said Leslie Tan.

They also cherished the idea to push the boundaries when it came to collaborations, opting not only to collaborate with classical musicians or groups, but musicians from other genres too, and theatre groups.

Their 2010 concert at the Esplanade, for example, called Highly Strung, saw the quartet teaming up with students from School of The Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore National Youth Orchestra, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and The Menuhin School of Music — as well as DJ Aldrin, one of Singapore’s top DJs.

They have picked up a string of accolades, ever since the four left the SSO in 1997. These include the Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Second Joseph Joachim International Chamber Music Competition held in Weimar, Germany; the 2002 Singapore Youth Award in Arts and Culture; and the 2008 Artistic Excellence Award (classical) by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.

‘Sometimes we’d rather go fishing’

While getting awards and going on the road may seem like a whole lot of fun, there are hi-jinks, too. For instance, the quartet were once nearly deported because they didn’t have the right papers when they arrived at Glasgow.

“They wanted to send us back on the next flight to Singapore,” said Leslie. “They confiscated our passports, but they let us stay in Glasgow for that night. Luckily the festival promoters got everything sorted out the next day.

“But because of that, we have this stamp on our passport, so now everywhere we go, we would be asked about that at the airport. Maybe they think we are terrorists with that stamp.”

At a concert in the Philippines, the T’ang Quartet had to stop the show when Leslie broke a string on his cello. “He had to go back and change it and we had to play the piece from the beginning,” said Lionel. “Then when we got to almost the same spot, Yu Ying burst a string and he had to go back and change it and we had to start all over again.”

“Also, when you travel say, 27 hours, across America, it’s tough,” said Ang. “Sometimes, when you have jet lag, all you can think of is ‘let’s just get through this’.”

It has not always been smooth sailing for the T’ang Quartet.

“Being together for 25 years doesn’t mean it everything comes together easily,” said Ng. “We still fight for our ideals, and those must be unified. We must have a unanimity in what we do, musically as well as everything else.”

“This is sort of a marriage between the four of us — plus our wives and families,” added Lionel. “That is a lot of baggage!”

“I think the worst part about being in T’ang Quartet is that we have to put in the hard slog,” said Ang. “People don’t see us behind closed doors, what we have to do to get everything together. I mean, it’s our passion, yes, but being mentally prepared and physically spent every day? We have to be very disciplined to do this. Not a lot of other groups do this.”

“Sometimes you wake up and you think, ‘oh god, we have rehearsals today’,” said Leslie. “But we go in and put in the hard work, and we emerge the better for it. Although, sometimes we just want to go fishing.”

The quartet certainly aren’t thinking about fishing now. They have been putting in the hours to make sure that tomorrow’s concert will go off without a hitch. And they’re raring to go.

“It’s going to be very intimate and very special,” said Leslie. “The local audience will be able to experience what it’s like attending a concert in Europe, in a way, because over there, they also do concerts in churches and smaller places of worship like that.

“It’s going to be a great experience.” — TODAY