Whatever you do, don’t tell Take 5 they remind you of T’ang Quartet. Sure, the similarities are evident: both comprise alumni of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and both play four stringed instruments. But the resemblance ends there. ‘We are very different,’ affirms Chan Yoong Han, Take 5’s viola player. ‘They are a professional, full-time chamber group. We are pretty much still individuals with other careers. They come together every single day – they see their group members more than they see their spouses!’
Comparisons aside, Take 5 have become one of Singapore’s most recognisable chamber music ensembles since they formed in 2007. Four string players – Foo Say Ming on first violin, Lim Shu Churn on second violin, Chan Wei Shing on cello and Yoong Han on viola – complement a lone pianist, Lim Yan. The quintet’s approach of tackling rarely played compositions comes to the fore this month, when they take the stage for the Scandinavia-inspired Northern Lights concert, featuring pieces by Jean Sibelius and Christian Sinding.
Take 5 initially came together as part of the SSO’s annual chamber music series – the bowed instrument players are or have been part of the orchestra – and were never meant to be a permanent group. After their virgin experience together as a small-sized outfit, the five were hooked. And even though they play only a few concerts every year, that’s just the way they like it, explains Yoong Han. ‘Most of us continue to come together for the sake of making music. I don’t think there’s any money-making aspect, any commercial expectations in this. Sometimes we even lose money! This is just to rekindle our drive to explore and to play music as a small group.’
THE ‘V’ WORD
Yoong Han didn’t start out with the viola. Currently a first violinist (fixed chair) of the SSO, he picked up the larger instrument as a ‘break’. ‘Playing first violin all the time in the higher register, it’s good to change and play the middle voices,’ admits the musician, who is also a faculty member at the School of the Arts and an occasional concerto soloist. ‘I enjoy playing the viola as a hobby. It gives me a chance to play in the lower register and, therefore, understand the music better.’
Playing in a chamber music ensemble gives Yoong Han room to roam. Unlike in traditional orchestras, he can be both a soloist and a team player at once. In fact, he lets in that most musicians try to do as much chamber music as possible: ‘That’s the form of music they use to destress. After playing with many orchestras of differing standards, it’s a relief to play chamber music with your peers. You’re in control of your own tone, yet are part of a larger whole.’
Despite that, Yoong Han isn’t about to pack up his violin and, pardon the pun, take five from the SSO anytime soon. Take 5 remain his beloved mistress, and watching the group evolve in sound – both as individuals and as an ensemble – is enough for him. ‘All of us are good friends, and although we only prepare one or two concerts a year, this will be our 12th concert together. And we hope for many more to come.’
Northern Lights is at Esplanade Recital Studio on May 24.