Sunday, 6 February 2011

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Prize Winners Concert I / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (1 February 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times
on 3 February 2011 with the title
"Winners' first concert a hit".

The Prize Winners Concert is an annual highlight in the Conservatory’s calendar, showcasing the cream of the crop of young musical talents within the republic. For the first time, this event takes the form of two separate concerts. If this first concert is anything to go by, the quality has indeed hit a new high.

But first, the Conservatory Orchestra opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, in a taut reading led by its newly appointed music director Jason Lai (left). For a comic opera, it sounded a little too hectic and aggressive, but the precision of playing was never in doubt.

Sunny D major soon gave way to mystery and urgency of D minor in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 (K.466), where Singaporean pianist Jonathan Shin held sway. Here is a supremely confident young man, whose perfect conception of stürm und drang (storm and stress) was only matched by the elegance and crispness of the playing.

Every note was well judged and delivered with conviction. Going beyond superficial brilliance, it was a probing account that mixed typical rococo simplicity and smoothness with Beethovenian dramatics (Ludwig himself wrote the cadenzas). There was humour in the finale, with Shin exchanging smart repartee with the woodwinds before registering a joyous close.

He amply demonstrated that you do not need an ultra-Romantic Russian concerto to make a big impression. In the same key signature was the evening’s final work, Jean Sibelius’s ruggedly hewn Violin Concerto (Op.47). Belying a willowy figure, Zhao Yi (left) generated a voluminous tone from her 1828 Alessandro D’espine violin, one which sang out like a belter.

Projecting well above the orchestra’s very discreet partnership, she carved out large sweeps of sound with seeming ease and composure. However the real risk was in straying intonation, especially in long solo passages, which were soon righted when the orchestra re-entered the fray.

The work’s success was due in no small part to the orchestral contribution from one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonists. Great attention to detail and textures were paid by conductor Lai and his charges, which gave the performance much added nuance.

The excellent timpanist, ever clear and steadfast in his beat, led the rampage of the reindeers (a variation of Donald Tovey’s apt “polonaise of polar bears” description) in the finale. Needless to say, it made for breathtaking ride to the end.

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