Tuesday, 12 March 2013

INTO THE NEW WORLD / NUS Symphony Orchestra / Review

NUS Symphony Orchestra
University Cultural Centre
Sunday (10 March 2013)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 12 March 2013 with the title "Energy flows when East meets West".

The East and West have always had a mutual fascination of each other’s cultures, and this concert drew upon this synergy with popular works of the symphonic repertoire. On casual glance, the pieces performed by the National University of Singapore Symphony Orchestra did not seem to reflect this, but the listening experience soon proved otherwise.

Opening with three movements from Hungarian nationalist Zoltan Kodály’s Háry János Suite, one was immediately struck by how Oriental the music sounded. Jonathan Lee's nicely shaded opening viola solo set the melancholy mood for the nostalgic Song, paving the way for the virtuosity of guest yangqin soloist Qu Jian Qing (Principal in the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, above), whose instrument more than ably replaced the Hungarian cimbalom, played by striking rather than plucking or bowing its strings.

Traditional Chinese instruments, the sheng, dizi and yangqin, also appeared in Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s Butterfly Lovers Concerto, replacing and complementing the parts of the oboe, flute and harp. Although scored for Western orchestra, these touches lent an air of authenticity and the orchestra supported violinist Foo Say Ming  (left) to the hilt.

To say that Foo plunged into its Romantic excesses with real relish would be to put it mildly. He owned the piece, colouring it with judiciously placed portamenti, or slides, which simulated the erhu’s plaint and vocal inflections of Beijing Opera. He also blended very well with cellist Kenneth Lee and their unison duet together was very memorable.

After the intermission, conductor Lim Soon Lee (right) presided over a tautly paced account of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, popularly known as “From The New World. Whether it contains native-American melodies, Afro-American spirituals, Central European symphonic formalities, or a synthesis of these is one for the musicologists, but this performance had much to recommend.

After a cautious start from the violas and cellos, the young musicians launched themselves fearlessly into the fray. At the energetic tempo adopted by Lim, there was no room for insecurity or doubt, and their response was a robust one. Woodwinds were excellent in the Largo, with Georgina Ng’s cor anglais solo garnering the honours, and the strings had many degrees of subtlety which guaranteed the success of this movement.   

The third movement’s Slavonic dance was equally trenchant, and there was no let-up in the rambunctious finale, with the tension ratcheted to almost unsustainable levels. Sustain they did, and despite strain in the brass when pushed to extremes, the final pages were a testament to how well this ensemble has progressed through the years.

The encore of Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance was an apt and welcome one, a celebratory close to the evening’s fine musical fare.    
Photographs courtesy of NUS Centre for the Arts.

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