Monday, 15 April 2013


The NAFA Orchestras
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (12 April 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 April 2013 with the title "Beethoven's classic played light and fresh".

As the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) commemorates the 75th anniversary of its founding, it took the opportunity to reflect upon its roots as a Chinese community-based institution that was unafraid to look to the West for inspiration. Both the NAFA Chinese Orchestra and the NAFA Orchestra had half a concert to itself.

Quek Ling Kiong conducted the Chinese orchestra in three widely contrasting works. The opener Theme of the Patriots by Yu Hui Yong and Hu Deng Tiao was typical of 1950s flag-waving socialism Red Chinese-style, highlighting the orchestra’s six suona players to maximum effect.

Far less strident was Phoon Yew Tien’s newly commissioned Blossoms, which incorporated two old songs Selling Flowers (1940s) and Blooming Flowers (1960s), including taped voices and rhythmic figures that were repeated with a touch of the minimalists. The light textured sounds sat well with Eric Watson’s Pearls, its likeable melody already familiar with several outings on record and in concert. Despite their different backgrounds, both works qualified to be called Nanyang music, that is music conceived in and inspired by matters Southeast Asian.

The young orchestra impressed with its technical prowess and discipline, breathing a hale and hearty sound tempered with more than several degrees of subtlety. Just as commendable were the larger NAFA Orchestra and Chorus led by Lim Yau in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.    

Lim holds the record of having conducted this immortal classic the most times in Singapore. Yet he has always found ways of making it sound fresh and unhackneyed. Taking a leaf from his last outing of the work with The Philharmonic Orchestra, also in Esplanade, orchestral excesses were pared down and tempos were kept on the brisk side.

The fast first two movements were kept on a tight leash, straining and snapping with defiance as the playing was kept on a razor’s edge throughout. There was to be no relaxation in the slow movement, but its majesty gradually unfolded like a red carpet surely and seamlessly rolled out. Decidedly short winded, it clocked in faster than the first movement!

And to the choral finale, its rapturous quality was captured brilliantly by the 150-strong chorus which did not fail to elicit that spine-tingling effect whenever it was called upon. The quartet of soloists, led by bass-baritone Roderick Earle’s moving opening exhortation, was better than the foursome which sang the same work in NAFA’s 70th anniversary. The Turkish march episode bristled with tenor Justin Lavender’s heroics, and each fugue negotiated by the orchestra and chorus produced a succession of visceral thrills.

With soprano Janis Kelly and mezzo Jessica Chen completing the group, this was an Ode To Joy to remember. And who could forget the most distracting of audiences in the circle seats, whose eagerness to applaud at the most inopportune moments bordered on the desperate. They did so dutifully after each movement, and not once in the middle of the finale but thrice, even as Beethoven paused for a breath. Newcomers they may be, but concert etiquette lessons are in order, yet again.

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