Friday, 30 April 2010

Sichuan Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Sichuan Conservatory Orchestra
Zhu Qi-Yuan, Conductor
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Thursday (29 April 2010)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 1 May 2010.

China has produced so many top-flight musicians in past decades, thus it was interesting to see how an orchestra from one if its regional conservatories fared. On the evidence of the Chengdu-based Sichuan Conservatory Orchestra, one would say not too shabbily.

The brisk opening chords of Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus were delivered crisply with clean cut and thrust, signs of discipline and cohesiveness. The ensuing Allegro had Mozartean lightness, balanced by Beethoven’s irrepressible force of will that carried the short curtain-raiser to its emphatic conclusion.

Next were two movements from Chinese composer Ao Chang-Qun’s Life Symphony, written in memory of victims in the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan. As conductor Zhu Qi-Yuan related, the foundations of the Conservatory shook on the Twelfth of May, and many had lost friends and loved ones.

While the gesture was worthy, the music was derivative and cliché-ridden. The slow movement paced like a Russian lament with echoes of Samuel Barber, while the finale’s brass fanfares could have accompanied end credits to some John Williams-scored movie. There was not a hint of Chinese melody whatsoever, but ersatz Copland and Bernstein galore. There was no way that the orchestra could turn lead into gold.
Ning Feng readies himself for an encore.

It did however play sympathetic partner to Chinese violinist Ning Feng, winner of the 2006 Paganini International Violin Competition, in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor (Op.47). Here is Chinese violin equivalent to match the likes of Lang Lang (piano) and Wang Jian (cello), with a searing intensity and free-wheeling virtuosity that made the fiendish score look and sound like child’s play.

Ning communicates with immediacy, and produces an extraordinary range of dynamics, from delicate pianissimos to slashing fortissimos, all in immaculate intonation and phrasing. A slew of bravos also greeted his dainty encore, a transcription of Tarrega’s Memories of the Alhambra. Paganini lives again!

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s rollicking Seventh Symphony in A major (Op.92), taken at a breakneck speed and without any break between movements. At this pace, whatever finer points and details to be savoured became a blur. Was this a smokescreen, or merely an opportunity to flex galloping muscles because it can? At any rate, any deficit of subtlety was filled by plenty of heart and guts, which made of an invigorating listen. It wasn’t the prettiest, but it certainly wasn’t boring.

Ning Feng reunites with Singaporean pianist Lim Yan (left).
The duo gave a stupendous performance at the
2007 Huayi Festival @ Esplanade.

The Sichuan Conservatory Orchestra was presented and hosted by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

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