Review of
'Living with Mrs Ilano's Cello Family'
(The Arts House, 10 Sep 12)

The Straits Times
13 Sep 2012
by Dr Chang Tou Liang

Thanks to the glamour and allure of Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pre
and others, the cello has become a popular instrument among
Singaporean students, its appeal only exceeded by the piano and
violin. Its practitioners have also to thank the legacy of teaching,
which in pre-Conservatory years was led by Singapore
Symphony Orchestra cellists, the most prominent being Mrs
Herminia Ilano.

She was the sub-Principal cellist of the national orchestra from
1979 to 1994. She is still teaching and her list of students reads
like a Who’s Who of the cello in Singapore today. This enjoyable
hour-long concert was presented by four of her most
accomplished former students in advance celebration of her 75th
birthday in December.

It began with the most famous cello work bar none, Saint-Saëns's
The Swan in an arrangement for four cellos. The most senior of
the four, Chan Wei Shing, was given the honour of playing its
swooning melody. Leslie Tan provided the bass pizzicato
accompaniment, while Song Woon Teng and Loke Hoe Kit
performed the figurations in between. Then each played a
selection of repertoire works in turn.

Chan, an SSO musician and recent conductor of Singapore
premiere of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, opened with the first
movement of Zoltan Kodaly’s Unaccompanied Cello Sonata.
Inspired by earthy Hungarian folk music, this was a deeply-
breathed oration that brought out a wealth of emotional extremes.
His big vibrato was memorable, as were those passages played
sul ponticello, near the bridge, which produced an unnerving edgy
metallic sound.

Song, also of the SSO, delighted in the prestidigitation of Czech
composer David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. This was more of
a gypsy fantasy, closely aligned to Franz Liszt’s own rhapsodies,
the melodies (of mostly doubtful authenticity) were liberally quoted
and spun out at spellbinding speeds. He was accompanied by
pianist Low Shao Ying, who also had cello lessons with Ilano.

Tan, best known as the cellist of the T’ang Quartet, played
movements from Bach’s Suites Nos.1 and 4 on a baroque cello.
Using gut strings and tuned at a lower pitch than its modern
counterpart, a dry but deeply resonant sound was yielded. As the
instrument had no end pin (or the “spike”), it was a curious sight
to see Tan cradling it with his legs, and holding the bow near its

The youngest player was the 24-year-old Loke, one generation
younger than the rest and winner of the Lynn Harrell Cello
Competition in Texas. With Ilano, he learnt to play Edouard Lalo’s
Cello Concerto in D minor. In its Intermezzo movement, he
comfortably transitioned between solemnity in the opening and
playfulness in its scherzo-like interludes.

All four cellists returned for the hymn-like Ave Maria by Wilhelm
Fitzenhagen, a veritable song without words, which closed the
concert on an emotional high. Its sheer beauty as the broad
melody gradually unfolded was the climax of the evening. Ilano
had exhorted her musical children to “play with your heart”, and
that was exactly what they did.