Sunday, 24 April 2011

A MUSICAL CHEMISTRY / Singapore National Youth Orchestra / Review

A MUSICAL CHEMISTRY / Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall / Thursday (21 April 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 23 April 2011 with the title "Youths show skill, potential".

The Singapore National Youth Orchestra is a slick outfit, with Ministry of Education backing and an influential sponsor in the German chemical company Lanxess to enrich its collective experience. Its latest concert, led by Russian conductor Alexander Polishchuk, was another display of its polish, prowess and potential.

With all cylinders firing at maximum throttle for Wagner’s Mastersingers Of Nuremberg Overture, one could be forgiven for mistaking these youngsters to be their seniors and tutors in the Singapore Symphony, such was their voluminous output. Entries were clean, precise and the counterpoint intricately deciphered for a memorable opening.

The concerto was memorable for different reasons. Despite an Amazonian stature, personality and sound to match, the Canadian violinist Lara St.John was a portrait of self-indulgence in Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Violin Concerto. A self-professed “wild child” of the violin, unchecked feral instincts resulted in a reading that lurched between nonchalance and hyperactivity.

Her solo entry was hardly distinguished, flat in affect and barely in tune. One wondered whether this was deliberate, as she has talent and technique aplenty to burn. It got better but the tendency to stop, start and linger, such as the lead-up to the finale, was sometimes infuriating. It was amazing how the orchestra partnership coped without perilously falling apart.

Lara St.John and questionable taste go together, it seems. Her solo Bach CD featured in Gramophone magazine's 15 worst ever album covers (May 2011)

Young musicians will have to look elsewhere for leadership, such as its absent Music Director Darrell Ang, whose Fanfare for a Frazzled Earth was given a world premiere. A brief but powerfully evocative work modelled after Stravinsky’s Fireworks, the sound palette was sumptuously conceived. With many threads proceeding simultaneously, an Oriental theme on violas and cellos emerged amid the distant birdsong and incessant hum of nature. Its message was to treasure our world before we lose it altogether.

Closing the concert was Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, a sprawling work lent unity by its recurring themes and motifs. Polishchuk’s marshalling of the forces was exemplary, with the slow introduction wound to heights of tension, before released like an uncoiled spring for the Allegro and build-up to a cathedral of Wagnerian sonority.

In the slow movement’s serenade, the cor anglais solo dropped the baton but nonetheless did well to recover. The exciting finale was a mirror of the opening, with all musicians on edge to conclude an encouraging performance that bodes well for the future.

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