Monday, 29 March 2010

PAINTED SCENES by Yong Siew Toh Percussion and New Music Ensemble / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Percussion & New Music Ensemble
Jonathan Fox, Conductor
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (27 March 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 March 2010.

People who attend orchestral concerts and carry the misconception that percussion players have it easy could do worse than attending all-percussion concerts, now regular features at the Conservatory. Led by SSO’s principal percussionist Jonathan Fox, these students of the “kitchen department” are bona fide virtuosos.

The opening work, Conversations In The Forest III by Japanese marimba doyenne Keiko Abe, featured just two players. Just how Sun Yi and Akari Tsurata, who played facing each other, reflected and reacted to each other’s playing was pure choreography. The marimba music was mellow timbred yet sonorous, filling the hall with a gentle and soothing aural glow.

Even more vibrant was American minimalist Steve Reich’s City Life (composer pictured left), performed by the New Music Ensemble and percussion casually attired in T-shirts, jeans, jockey caps and sneakers. Conductor Fox then turned up in his favourite Boston Red Sox jersey. In five conjoined movements, the 1995 work not mindless looping but a colourful mosaic of the urban landscape.

Recorded sounds of street cries such as “Check it out!”, taxi horns, car brakes, pile drivers and other heavy machinery “played” on sampling keyboards mingled with those of the orchestra. There was Reich’s trademark rhythmic chugging in the middle movement while a heartbeat pulsed through the fourth. Rhythmic precision ruled in this performance, which ended before it outlasted its freshness.

The big work was Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (composer pictured left), with the original piano part augmented with six percussionists. Not merely an amplification of the score, Fox’s ingenious arrangement for all instruments available to him also altered the tone and character of some movements. The Old Castle was transported from the Mediterranean to East Asia, while Ballet Of The Unhatched Chicks took on a groovy samba beat.

Through all this, American-born pianist and conservatory professor Thomas Hecht was rock solid in one of his signature pieces, even if there were moments where overdone percussion threatened to drown him out. After the final massive chimes of The Great Gate Of Kiev, the party was just starting.

As the encore, Hecht and all eight percussionists clad in sunshades hammered out Lalo Schifrin’s iconic Mission Impossible theme, including an improvisation that interpolated Mussorgsky’s Promenade theme from the Pictures. They were having fun, and very much so had the audience.

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