Saturday, 1 January 2011

NODAME LIVE / Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra / Review

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (31 December 2010)

The Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO), Singapore’s only community orchestra, is the testing ground for many of our nation’s young soloists and conductors before their launch to bigger and better things. Its celebratory New Year’s Eve concert was evidence of this, featuring the classical music played on the popular Japanese soap Nodame Cantabile. The concert was conducted by young naval-officer turned conductor Adrian Tan, who doubled as a quite engaging emcee.

It is easy to pooh-pooh the efforts of the musical amateurs, simply because they do not sound like the Singapore Symphony, or the amateur Orchestra of Music Makers for that matter, but the endeavour that is performing classical music exists at many different levels, and one has to start somewhere. For all the usual issues that plague amateur performances – inadequate technique, intonation lapses, untidy ensemble and threadbare sound – the BHSO came off with more than a few plusses in the very demanding two-and-a-half-hour long programme.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony opened the concert, albeit just the first movement. Here Tan instilled a modicum of discipline in the playing, so that the long introduction sounded coherent before gathering pace for the Allegro proper. Guided at a goodly pace, one did feel the brio of Beethoven coming alive.

The first concertante segment fell to young oboist Jeremy Wong in the first movement of Mozart’s only Oboe Concerto in C major. If it sounded familiar, that is because it is exactly the same music as his Second Flute Concerto in D major, so recently polished off by Emmanuel Pahud. The national service recruit Wong was not the most confident of soloists, fluffing his lines on a few occasions (that’s what NS does to your playing – you can’t practise enough while having to do area cleaning, 5BX, guardroom duty and what not) but he crafted the short cadenza well enough to deserve some plaudits.

The best soloist of the evening was pianist Azariah Tan, a natural talent in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. All three movements were performed and deservedly so, as he possessed the requisite technique and musicianship to do it justice. Faultlessly musical, he crafted the cantabile passages beautifully while punching out the louder bits with confidence, even though some overenthusiastic playing from the orchestra tended to drown out some passages. Some of the brass contributions were woeful, but one has to take the good with the bad.

Some wrong notes dogged the second movement cadenza, and the scherzando finale could have done with a little more mercurial lift on the wings but there was little denying his confidence and cool control of the keyboard. The central fugato in the finale was superbly handled and the race to the grand apotheosis was an exciting one. In a nutshell, Azariah’s performance is comparable to and even better than some of the finalists’ readings in certain international piano competitions. He is certainly ready to perform with the Singapore Symphony.

16-year-old violinist Selina Tang has already performed with the SSO, and her showpiece with the BHSO was Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. She possesses a huge tone for her slender physique, working to her advantage for this exuberant work, and her fiery red gown also helped. These days she also plays with a freedom and abandon, never a slave to the metronome or printed note, which probably comes from her time with SSO’s concertmaster Alexander “Sasha” Souptel, that sly master of the gypsy twist.

The second half began with a surprise item, a truncated 5-minute version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the piano substituted by the humble pianica. Remember the pianica? I did not know people still played that scourge of primary school students, the blown harmonica-like instrument with a keyboard. The unnamed soloist was riotously good, and at least he did not use the hosepipe mouthpiece!

The more serious fare that preceded the Sarasate was the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony. On a programme of mostly lollipops, this seemed out of place. Indeed it was. The work requires more rehearsals than the rest of the programme put together, and so the performance suffered despite the orchestra and Tan’s best efforts. A semula (Army drill command in Malay for a rerun) is in order for a later date, one hoped.

The final scripted piece was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, providing a suitably high octane close to the concert. The opening viola and cello chorale, although well crafted, could have been grander had there been more players but the battle between La Marseillaise and God Preserve The Tsar, or Napoleon versus Marshall Kutuzov, soon got underway. Kudos go to BHSO for bringing in the big artillery for the climax, as the recorded cannons and carillons sounded far more imposing and festive than the SSO’s lame Mahlerian sledgehammer employed in its recent concert.

A final reward for a generally well-behaved throng was Johann Strauss the Elder’s Radetzky March. This was possibly the first time that an audience was directed to clap softer and then louder for different passages, which gave an added nuance to this popular encore. Adrian Tan certainly knows how to work an audience too. Watch out for this rising name. Happy New Year!

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