Tembusu Evenings by Ho Chee Kong

Brian Patrick Bromberg
9 November, 2022

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It seems the cello has inspired a great deal of music to be played or listened to at night. The countless nocturnes, and serenades that exploit the cello’s darker side indeed seem to make up a good portion of our repertoire. Two excellent examples presented in previous editions of Why You Should Learn This Piece include David Feurzeig’s Cello Suite, and George Lam’s Suite for Cello. This month we will take a look at Singapore composer Ho Chee Kong’s Tembusu Evenings. The composer offers this short description about the piece:

“The Tembusu is a hardy tree that is native to Southeast Asia. Its canopy of leaves provides welcome shade in the equatorial climate and its flowers exude a fragrance that grows stronger as the night deepens. Tembusu Evenings is a little suite of stories surrounding this majestic tree and the misty memories that unfold under its leafy folds.”

The opening Lento acts as an unveiling of the Tembusu tree itself. There are woody pizzicatos sprinkled throughout the majestic and stately double stops that give the feeling of solidarity and stability. Technically, it poses a challenge for the performer to play these double stops in tune, but using open strings and harmonics to help calibrate your hand frame is a sure way to success.

In his notes about the piece Ho mentions that the piece is a ‘...little suite of stories…’ and as a performer this is something we can really use to our advantage in the early stages of learning the piece. I always encourage my students to think about what the piece means to them, and I find for many students, visualisation helps to establish strong musical characters in the music, it forces us to play with a focus on something other than accuracy and getting all of the notes right. To give you an idea of what I am talking about I will describe what I imagine when I hear and play the second movement/story. I see a young hero receiving their call to action. There is some second guessing as to whether or not the hero is brave enough to answer the call. After some introspective consideration the hero agrees with a solemn acceptance. Perhaps your idea of the story is completely different, this is what makes music and performing so interesting and engaging. Everyone approaches a piece of music from a different background and viewpoint, all of which are valid. What is your idea?

Put your bow down for the wonderful pizzicato third movement that further embraces the arboreal flavours from the introduction. Here, the playful lines need to unfold in-time without interrupting the metric feel of the music. As with all pizzicato movements we have to play with a very strong left hand so the notes remain resonant throughout. To help with this resonance vibrato is a must.

Movement 4 brings us to an almost baroque setting that manoeuvres between G minor and E flat major. The moving semi-quaver passages are perhaps reminiscent of a toccata or ricercar that eventually gives way to a cadential figure that rests on G and A. The challenge to this movement  is finding a suitable bow stroke that is somewhere in between a feathered baroque bowing style and a more aggressive romantic style.

Finally we have the fifth movement which recalls the opening material of movement one. A similar character prevails giving the piece the resolved feeling of having come full circle.

Tembusu Evenings on the whole is not out of reach for an intermediate student. There are a few extended techniques, some double stops, and many easy to hear melodies. The piece includes much of the fluidity of Bach’s writing without sounding like a copycat. Expand your horizons and play some music by an Asian composer.

Composer’s contact hocheekong@nus.edu.sg