Monday, 12 April 2010

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra with Takuo Yuasa / Review

The Conservatory Orchestra
Takuo Yuasa, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (9 April 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 April 2010.

For those who imagined the viola to be the ugly stepsister of the violin, there is no better myth-buster than a performance that proved the contrary. That coup was delivered by Zhang Manchin (below), SSO Principal violist and the Conservatory’s head of viola studies, who gave the Singapore Premiere of Bela Bartok’s Viola Concerto with the Conservatory Orchestra.

In a rarefied idiom of dark hues and liberal chromaticism, she transformed the much-maligned instrument into a glamour-puss, a purveyor of mesmerising beauty. She drew a rich and opulent sonority, always warm and heartfelt, that had both purity and clarity.

Make no mistake, this was no smoothing of Bartok’s characteristically spiky edges but rather a realisation that much sense could be made out of seemingly rough-hewn material. The young musicians coped admirably with the difficult scoring, with intricate solos wonderfully dovetailed into the sound canvas and brass choirs singing with gusto and accuracy.

This fine form was already apparent in the curtain raiser, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3. Its opening was gripping, laden with expectancy before launching into the stirring and heroic Allegro theme. The pivotal trumpet solo that signaled the end of inquisition was confidence itself, a trait of good technique and teaching.

The big work on the programme was Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony in D minor, the most tragic and Wagnerian number of the Bohemian composer’s final symphonic trilogy. Japanese guest conductor Takuo Yuasa brought out a tension-filled reading that was ever alert but never hard driven. His ability to tighten and relax the reins gave the music ample opportunity to breathe but was kept on febrile edge throughout.

The slow movement also oozed Brahmsian intensity, turning its carefree pastoral opening into something more sinister, while the Scherzo had the lilt and lift of Dvorak’s popular Slavonic Dances. The finale then returned on its journey of doom but not without displaying an enviable flexibility and virtuosity of ensemble. It was a fine end to another exciting concert season. What can we next expect from these supersonic youths?

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