HEROES’ LIVES AND LOVES / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall / Friday (8 April 2011)
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 11 April 2011 with the title "Perfect night of passion".
The Conservatory Orchestra’s last concert in its academic year is a visit to the Esplanade, usually an event to perform blockbuster works otherwise constrained by the Conservatory’s smaller auditorium. The Wagnerian programme conducted by Music Director Jason Lai appropriately began with Prelude to Act One and Liebestod from Wagner’s opera Tristan And Isolde.
The unresolved dissonances were a landmark, one in which cellos opened with such purity and homogeneity, setting the stage for playing of much refinement and control. Pauses and pacing were superbly judged. This lent dramatic heft in both movements that rose passionately with each oncoming wave, onwards to ecstatic climax and final meltdown.
Isolde’s soprano voice was not missed in any case, for the vocals came in Elgar’s elegiac Cello Concerto in E minor. If there is a word to describe Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei’s playing on the 1780 J.B.Guadagnini instrument, it would be “breathtaking”. One was assured of an extraordinary performance the moment his opening solo resounded, and charting his every muse and turn of phrase was pleasure to behold.
There was lightness and comedy in the Scherzo, which turned into genuine grief for the Adagio, before concluding with pomp and tragedy sharing equal stage. Qin’s mastery of its myriad mood shifts and dynamic intricacies were the real deal, easily the most memorable reading of this work here since Yo-Yo Ma’s in 1999.
The biggest piece on show was Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), more a 45-minute symphony than mere symphonic poem. Going beyond its hubristic programme, one finds a genuinely coherent utterance that belies the self-indulgent titles of its six segments. Symphonic opulence and facility of writing often came too easily to Strauss, so go the usual criticisms.
No matter, the young orchestra generated an enormous sonority to hail the autobiographical hero, a feat matched by the deliberately fussy counterpoint on reeds and brass, representing his claque of snivelling critics. Each movement was marvellously characterised, from the florid violin solo by guest concertmaster Guo Shuai to a full-blown symphonic battle (complete with offstage brass), the glorious rehashing of Strauss’ old themes and the final denouement.
Highest praise ultimately go to conductor Lai, attired not in formal concert-wear but plain shirtsleeves, whose no-nonsense leadership and indefatigable energy oversaw this empowering concert, a new high point in the orchestra’s already impressive list of achievements.