Friday, 30 September 2011


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Wednesday (28 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 September 2011 with the title "Riotous night of Carnival fun".

Whenever one scans lists of players in Yong Siew Toh Conservatory’s concert programmes, it is hard to miss the Vietnamese names. Despite having established music educational institutions of its own, students from our communist Southeast Asian neighbour have been making their mark here, thanks to scholarships from Keppel Corporation. This concert was a way of saying “Thank You” by seven of these students.

Seven was also the number of players in the septets that opened the concert, beginning with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. The work is unusually scored for flute, clarinet, string quartet, with the harp replaced by the piano. A comfortable balance was achieved by the winds and strings, and even if Chen Yi Huan’s piano was a less ethereal substitute, a sumptuous sound was achieved.

Equally peculiar was the scoring of Saint-Saens’s Septet in E flat major (Op.65) which threw in the trumpet and double-bass into the mix. All ears were on Vu Tien Dat’s resonant trumpet, which stood out from the throng but had the sensitivity to blend into the textures when required.

The music had a curious mix of academism – with fugues to open and close – and folk-like quaintness in its four movements. The work could have sounded dull and uninspired, but the musicians’ sprightly account prevented it from sagging.

The complete list of performers (I wish I could have named all!)

The evening’s highlight was a chamber version of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, with a contemporary narration by Jack Prelutsky memorably read by vice-dean Craig de Wilde. The two pianists Phan Gia Anh Thu and Matthew Mak (Singapore) were able partners who held the fort while the other musicians played musical chairs through its 14 movements.

Each of the starring animals was vividly characterised. Tran Minh Duc’s jet-black double bass was a most convincing Elephant, lumbering and trumpeting his way effortlessly. Violinists Nguyen Ngoc Huy and Dang Viet Ha expertly portrayed the asses, the composer’s sly dig at music critics (hence the Persons with Long Ears). Percussionist Nguyen Duy Anh’s xylophone rattled the bones on the Fossils, and despite a short lapse of concentration, the old tunes rolled on.

Pride of place goes to Trinh Ha Linh’s cello in The Swan, whose seamless legato line was as graceful as the performer herself. The whole band came together for the infectious Finale, which was greeted with a chorus of cheers. This concert will be repeated in Hanoi on Saturday, which is the Viets’ turn to enjoy their Singapore-trained talents.

The article published in The Straits Times carried my errors involving the pianists in the works, but has been rectified for publication on the blog. For the record, Vietnamese pianist Phan Gia Anh Thu performed in both Saint-Saëns works. My sincere apologies to the pianists.

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