Thursday, 28 October 2010

NAFA Orchestra / Review

NAFA Orchestra
Lee Foundation Theatre
Tuesday (26 October 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 October 2010.

More young orchestras are now undertaking ambitious concert programmes that were once the domain of professional orchestras. While it is laudable to aim high, the risks are also commensurate, sometimes to the expense of the music-making.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Orchestra performed an extremely demanding all-German concert under its German music director Volker Hartung. While the results were mixed, the level of zeal and enthusiasm put into the effort cannot be denied.

The evening began with Wagner’s imposing Overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The band generated a big, raw sound, with the brass sounded mostly overawed, but more good could be taken home from the performance. Alert entries, good woodwind solos and a sense of togetherness, especially in the fussy counterpoint, welded the showpiece together.

Montenegrin pianist Boris Kraljevic, a NAFA faculty member, was soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op.54). He is a sensitive performer who knows how to turn up the heat when required, which made for a reading that readily swung between dynamic extremes. He was not the only standout, as both solo clarinettist and oboist also had excellent showings.

While the opening movement was predictably big-boned, the dainty Intermezzo saw an unusual exchange between his mincing plaints and the orchestra’s schmaltzy replies. The finale had both soloist and orchestra on the ropes, living dangerously. While not note-perfect, Kraljevic kept his composure throughout this virtuoso’s circus with rocky steady tenacity, and the ensemble coped valiantly with notoriously treacherous off-beats.

They finished together in one piece, and the reward was the soothing balm of Kraljevic’s encore, a Schumann Romanze (Op.28 No.2) lovingly voiced.

The final and toughest challenge was Brahms’ elusive Third Symphony in F major (Op.90), a work unusual that all its four movements end quietly. So there was to be no blood, guts and glory to close. Instead, the ensemble got down to the hard work of making the music relevant. Conducting the whole concert from memory, Hartung coaxed a sympathetic reading that took the work at a brisk and goodly pace.

While rhythmic stolidity sometimes stood in the way, the attention to details and sweep from the strings in the inner slow movements provided memorable moments. The NAFA Orchestra is a work in progress, but one from which much encouragement may be drawn.

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