Friday, 11 November 2011

MIXED METAPHORS / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory New Music Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (9 November 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 November 2011 with the title "Moving images add suspense".

Probably the best way to approach new music is to leave all pre-conceptions and expectations at the door, and let the occasion and process of performance sweep you along. New music has had bad rep, especially when what one normally defines as music – a regulated combination of melody, harmony and rhythm - is suspended, replaced by seemingly random sounds, even noises. However, little effort is made on the part of listeners to understand the minds of composers and performers.

Performances by the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble in Esplanade’s ground-breaking Spectrum Series have helped bridge this creator-audience divide. With the national orchestra avoiding this hazard-laden path, nobody does it better. The Singapore premieres of three landmark works, conducted by Chan Tze Law (left), could not have been more persuasively handled.

Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (1971) is not for the impatient, as it ambles along in a static and glacial pace. When silences and pauses are as important as sounds, we begin to appreciate their true value. The sparse scoring gave much scope for Jonathan Lee’s throaty but emphatic viola to be a protagonist, alongside Yoo Seol Ah’s haunting dulcet soprano tones and serene voices from the SYC Ensemble Singers. Commissioned for a performance in a Houston (Texas) chapel adorned with Mark Rothko’s iconic paintings, its contemplative thirty minutes passed for a seemingly far shorter duration of time.

Quite the opposite was Thomas Ades’s Concerto Conciso (1997), which packed a great deal in three short movements. Pianist Thomas Hecht provided the main cut and thrust, with winds and brass gelling rhythmically like a jazz band. As if constrained by compositional form, there was a mini chaconne and a round dance (called a brawl), bringing the bustling work to an abrupt end with the piano’s lid slammed shut.

The evening’s most challenging work was Edgard Varese’s Deserts (1954), scored for winds, percussion and electronic tape. The composer’s vision was of vast wastelands of the physical and metaphorical, including solitude of the soul. Its dense swathes of sound were interpolated with taped noise of a more mechanical kind, and accompanied by Bill Viola’s more contemporary film of geographical wildernesses, lightning, fire and water.

This was the rare case of moving images accompanying music, but it added an edge of suspense and the unexpected to the proceedings. But given the committed and convincing playing of all involved, it also became an added luxury.

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