Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Sunday (18 November 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 November 2012 with the title "Close contest with concertos".

There is one free musical event that invariably draws hundreds of music-lovers annually to Singapore’s west coast, and that is the finals of the Conservatory’s concerto competition. After all, how often does one get to hear four full-length concertos performed in the span of a single evening?

The format of this year’s competition was slightly different, as the winners of each instrumental category compete against each other for a coveted opportunity to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in a forthcoming season. Technique, interpretation and showmanship all come into play, and the four finalists had these by the buckets-load.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto from Ge Xiaozhe, whose digital brilliance united the seemingly paradoxical aspects of the music’s percussiveness and lyricism. Accurate and incisive, he was spot-on with the accents and brought out the fantastical and grotesque elements within the score. Dreamy and contemplative at moments, he upped the ante for the finale’s relentless march to finish on thrilling high.

Allied to this enterprise was superb student accompanist Zheng Qingshu who played the orchestra on the second piano with understated virtuosity and much subtlety. Significantly her contribution was on the same high level as the conservatory’s professional accompanists who supported the other soloists.

In Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Adam Wu coaxed a full and robust tone, which served the work’s rugged granite-like exterior well, yet at times revealing the reassuring warmth of its soft-centre. A searing intensity was the constant thread through its three movements, and later he went for broke in the finale’s savage dance. So what if some of the intonation flew astray? Risk-taking is what makes this masterpiece come alive.

The concert hall canon is heavily weighted in favour of the piano and strings, which meant that the brass concerto offered would be something unfamiliar. Zhang Yiliang, performing the Trombone Concerto by Ferdinand David (the violinist-composer who premiered Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto), gave a confident and persuasive performance that brought out its heroic and regal character, sandwiching an elegiac funeral march for contrast. His sound was burnished and secure throughout, winning new friends to this unlikely rarity. 

The evening closed with Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which ran the full gamut of emotional ups and downs in Wang Zihao’s highly passionate reading. Through him, the cello pleaded, sang, teased and wept. Where mere notes alone could not do justice to the catharsis, his involvement in this cryptic music was total, culminating in the solo cadenza of suffocating hysteria which seemed to capture the ethos of the Soviet composer’s being.

All the performances captivated this listener in different ways, and my vote would have gone to Wang’s Shostakovich by a whisker. That the jury of three professional musicians opted for Ge’s Prokofiev for the SSO gig seemed almost immaterial. The four young soloists could easily grace the world’s concert stages in years to come. 

Conservatory Director Bernard Lanskey announces the results. The winners get concerto opportunities with the SSO and Conservatory Orchestra. Also on stage are the judges conductor Joshua Kangming Tan, tubist Hidehiro Fujita and cellist Yu Jing. (from left)

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