Thursday, 2 February 2012

Conservatory Concerto Competition Prizewinners Concert I / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (31 January 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 February 2012 with the title "A real prize in winners' diverse offerings".

For this reviewer, one of the highlights of the annual calendar is the pair of concerts given by winners of the Conservatory’s annual concerto competition accompanied by the Conservatory Orchestra. The solo instruments represented this year were the double bass, piano, tuba and violin, the top picks from competitions for their respective instrumental groups. Another highlight was the diversity of repertoire displayed, showcasing the familiar alongside rarities and new music.

The first concert opened with American composer Frank Proto’s Nine Variants on Paganini, a double bass concerto constructed upon Italian violin virtuoso Paganini’s popular Caprice No.24, a subject almost worked to death by the likes of Brahms, Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski. Proto’s treatment juxtaposed modern dissonance with a healthy dose of showbiz and Broadway.

A nearly atonal introduction ushered in Yang Heran’s solo (above), which only revealed the main theme after several prefatory phrases. His instrument was amplified to allow the low registers to be better heard above the orchestra’s machinations, revealing him to be an extroverted and stylish player beneath a somewhat diffident exterior.

He made the bass sound like a nimble acrobat, riding effortlessly over the wide-ranging variations, from the broad and meditative (shades of the 18th Variation of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody), jazzy asides through a sultry tango to a spirited conclusion. This spirited jaunt with the orchestra’s largest instrument was clearly enjoyed by the audience.

Bina Jung (above) was the brilliant advocate in Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, the first major piano concerto by an American composer. This is only the second performance of the work in Singapore, having being premiered at the Festival of Arts in 2008. Composed before there was such a thing as a quintessential American voice, its disparate Continental influences were discernible, beginning with a Lisztian cadenza that introduced a theme that was a curious cross between Grieg and Dvorak.

Jung exhibited both seemingly endless reserves of power for its share of driving chords and kinetic octaves, and sensitivity for the Mendelssohnian filigree and Saint-Saëns-inspired musical high jinks. Despite a tendency for unapologetic note-spinning, the three movements passed like a breeze for a scintillating close. Unfaltering too was the orchestra’s attentive and tightly-knit contribution, helmed superbly by conductor Jason Lai.

The second concert will be held on 14 February with concertos by James Woodward and Tchaikovsky. How’s that for variety?

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