Saturday, 20 April 2013

CENTENNIAL RITES / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (18 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 April 2013 with the title "Rites of raw, primal energy".

The national Conservatory has invited renowned artists and conductors over the years as Artists-in-Residence to lead and inspire its students to excel. Visiting conductors have included Leon Fleisher, Takuo Yuasa and Mark Wigglesworth, but it will take some doing to better Japanese conductor Eiji Oue’s impression and impact on the conservatory orchestra’s young minds.

Oue was once a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, and has adopted some of his very physical movements and mannerisms on the podium. He conducts with his whole body, including making animated faces (below), stamping on the ground, shaking his fists with approval, the very suggestive swaying of hips and occasional leaps into the air. All this effort would have been naught if the orchestra did not respond with appropriate urgency.

In the Charlie Harmon-orchestrated Suite from Bernstein’s musical Candide, the ensemble exuded polish with a fine sheen, distinguished by excellent solo playing. Spanish rhythms were deliciously served up in the Old Woman’s song I Am Easily Assimilated, and the build-up to Let Our Garden Grow had true poise and stature. Close your eyes, and one thinks of the Boston Pops.

As an accompanist, the orchestra also shined in the tricky idiom of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, partnering Conservatory Head of Strings Qian Zhou’s alternatingly silky and spiky solo part. Her tone, incisive yet ethereal, was exemplary while the command and control of her 1757 Guadagnini was breathtaking. Here is a case where searing dissonance goes hand-in-hand with seamless lyricism, and one marvelled how this tightrope act was finely balanced from start to end.

The YSTCO with Qian Zhou in Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto

The enfant terrible in Prokofiev had a precedent that was Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite Of Spring, premiered to a riotous reception a century ago. Its innumerable discords and irregular meters still confound and jar the senses, but the head-scratching nowadays is reserved to how young orchestras in Singapore swallow its daunting challenges whole and with relish.

The Orchestra of the Music Makers conducted by Chan Tze Law had set the bar in the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival, and the Conservatory Orchestra did not disappoint on the night. The desolate opening bassoon solo was taken on with great confidence by Guo Peiling, around whom the woodwinds swarmed about in what must be three or four minutes of the most hellishly exposed and difficult passages.

Overcome with aplomb they did, and when the crunching Dance of the Adolescents imposed by its sheer presence, the playing simply took the listener by the scruff of the neck and held on tenaciously. The music’s raw, primal energy never flagged for a single moment as the ensemble fired on all cylinders with Oue, conducting from memory, firmly at the driving seat.

The percussion section, centred around a livewire timpanist, held sway, very much in its top form. In reality, all the sections impressed and there was little room for error in this high stakes game. By the time The Sacrifice came on, one was ready to put down one’s critical pen and be willingly swept away by the sheer momentum of the occasion.

Playing of such fervency and virtuosity is becoming a norm these days, but treasured nonetheless. The Rite marks a major landmark in every young musician’s performing career, one not easily forgotten. The best part is this: they will build upon this experience to reach new and greater heights.  

Post concert, there was a mad rush for the Maestro's autograph.

This lucky girl has her viola case autographed by Eiji Oue. (Another viola joke: How do you prevent a violin from being stolen? Keep it in a viola case.)
Concert photos by courtesy of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

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