Monday, 8 July 2013


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (5 July 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 July 2013 with the title "Polished pianist, chic violinist".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s annual President’s Young Performers Concert at the Esplanade is one platform which Singapore’s talented young musicians dream most about. Curiously, only pianists, violinists and an odd violist have made concerto appearances in front of the President and the First Lady. What happened to exceptional singers, cellists, woodwind and brass players? Do they not exist in our midst?

This year’s roster was again the predictable pianist and violinist tandem, but the two teenagers selected are without question the cream of the crop. Pianist Li Churen, only 17 and a student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, gave a sparkling and totally musical reading of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto in B flat major (Op.19).  This was chronologically the German composer’s earliest concerto, and had a Mozartean lightness which Li exploited to its fullest.

Her crisp articulation and singing lines were a joy to behold, yet she was not afraid to exert herself to bring on contrasting fortes and broadened dynamics. The slow movement oozed a silky elegance while the finale’s Rondo danced with a most playful of spirits. Taking deep and low bows, Li was an epitome of poise and polish.

By way of contrast, violinist Gabriel Ng, just one year older and studying at London’s Guildhall School, was chic and cool personified. He sauntered casually on stage, played with the orchestra’s strings in the tutti, before launching out on his own in the solo of Mozart’s First Violin Concerto. He brought out a warm and welcoming tone, allied with a natural unforced virtuosity that made light of the prodigy composer’s showy flourishes.

The cadenzas of the outer movements were expertly handled, and there was a gentle, almost insouciant lilt in the central slow movement that approximated a graceful slow dance. That Ng put as much care in this slender and early Mozart work as Elgar’s monumental concerto (the recording of his has just been released) showed him to be more than just a prodigy. He is already a true artist.    

The orchestra conducted by newly appointed Associate Conductor Joshua Kangming Tan opened the concert with Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, which highlighted the orchestra’s strings to best effect. The mercurial sheen the section radiated was only matched by the boldness of the brass which raised the temperature close to boiling point.

The major orchestral work that concluded the concert was Hindemith’s cumbersomely titled Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria Von Weber, essentially a concerto for orchestra in four rather easy-on-the-ears movements. Here the simple and rather banal melodies get the “full monty” treatment, being orchestrated and dressed up to the hilt.

There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments, including the chinoiserie of the second movement’s Turandot Scherzo, which culminated with a swinging jazzy fugue based on the pentatonic main theme, and a furious final march which must have given John Williams some ideas about his Star Wars music. Through all this barnstorming bluster, the lovely flute solos by Evgueni Brokmiller in the relative solace of the slow movement resounded like no other. Such wide-ranging contrasts are the essence of great music and art.

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