Thursday, 10 March 2011

ALPS TO APPALACHIANS / 4th Singapore Chamber Music Festival / Review

4th Singapore Chamber Music Festival
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (8 March 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in
The Straits Times on 10 March 2011 with the title
"Adventurous Escapades".

Chamber music is one of the most pleasurable activities imaginable, for performer and listener alike. Much enjoyment comes from the repertoire for various combinations of instruments, familiar or obscure. This concert had a bit of both, attended by an unusually large audience.

Completely unknown was Karl Pilss, whose Serenade for wind quintet in four movements was a pleasant if somewhat anonymous diversion. The conservatory students initially appeared tentative and ill at ease in gelling together, but soon settled with a leading light being the very steady oboist.

The pastoral feel suggested music by a lesser contemporary of Richard Strauss, one in which a spot of yodelling would not sound out of place. Wrong. Wikipedia reveals Pilss (1902-1979) to be an Austrian composer-conductor-pianist who wrote no less than 85 works for winds alone. Frankly, one would not greatly miss hearing the other 84.

No such problems with American Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, played in its chamber version for 13 instruments. The ballet written for the Martha Graham Dance Company sounds more invigorating in this rarely-heard form, not least because of its transparent textures. Conductor Chan Tze Law’s clear and precise direction was a boon, and the ensemble overcame all rhythmic intricacies and syncopations with great fluency and ease.

Then came the wonderful moment when the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts is heard, played first by an excellent clarinet solo and the variations following suit. This performance by 12 students (the sole exception being Albert Tiu on piano) was easily the most polished of the evening.

Rough and ready may describe the reading of Beethoven’s Septet (Op.20) by a combo of conservatory faculty and Singapore Symphony Orchestra musicians. Here is Beethoven at his least neurotic, exuding a carefree air of gem├╝tlichkeit more commonly associated with his younger colleague Schubert. This apparent congeniality saw a near lapse in the second movement with anxious looks among the strings.

No matter, it was the warm-hearted manner that all came together that touched. In the dance-like Theme and Variations, the witty exchanges between strings and Gao Jian’s French horn and Ma Yue’s clarinet were a total charmer. The Presto finale saw some harrowing moments of the music coming apart at the seams, but it was Zuo Jun’s outsized violin cadenza that waved all troubles away. Escapade and adventure, that’s what chamber music is all about.

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