Saturday, 9 February 2013

NAFA ORCHESTRA Concert Series / Review

Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (7 February 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 February 2013 with the title "Enchanted evening".

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra’s first concert of the year was mostly French, a departure from the predominant Austro-German and Central European repertoire it has been steadily working on over the past years. Diversity is important for the development of young musicians, to hone their ability to perform the wide variety of music that is expected of them these days.

Debussy’s landmark work, Preludet to the Afternoon of a Fawn opened the concert, with its haunting flute solo, ambiguous in tonality, well elucidated by Paul Huang. Arguably more impressive was oboist Vladyslav Shevchenko’s solos, which coupled with the lushness of the strings underlined the music’s indolent wallow.

Initially tentative in sound production and pacing, the orchestra led by veteran conductor Lim Yau soon grew in confidence and composure. A chamber-sized ensemble then sensitively partnered visiting oboist John Anderson, professor at London’s Royal College of Music, in Richard Strauss’s mellow Oboe Concerto.

A late work dating post-Second World War, it is a far cry from the self-serving bombast of the German’s earlier tone poems. Anderson honed a sweet but penetrating timbre for its three conjoint movements. Lightness of articulation reigned and the song-like slow movement reminded one of the composer’s expressive powers in opera.

The second half continued where Debussy left off, with a rare performance of the complete ballet music from Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye (Mother Goose). Containing far more music than the familiar 5-movement Suite, its seven parts are strung together seamlessly with intervening episodes that introduce and replay some of the important themes.  

Like in the Debussy, the ensemble started shakily, with wavering intonation from the French horns and woodwinds but it got better as the players settled down. The characterisation and sense of story-telling became more vivid. The contrabassoon’s gauche waltz in Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, and chirping piccolo and flute as Tom Thumb gets lost in the forest while darkness looms, had their moments to impress.

This parade of fairy tales culminated with the battery of percussion in the chic chinoiserie and pentatonic paradise that is the realm of Empress of the Pagodas. The sheer beauty of the strings came to the fore in The Enchanted Garden, closing the ballet on an exquisite high. More of the same please.   

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