Friday, 6 September 2013

10TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION CONCERT Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (4 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 September 2013 with the title "A shining showcase".

The two fixtures that have most transformed the Singapore classical music scene in the past decade culminated in a harmonious confluence with this evening’s concert. In 2003, both the Esplanade Concert Hall and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory first opened its doors to musical excellence, and have not looked back ever since.

Maestros of YST: Chan Tze Law, Wang Ya-Hui & Jason Lai.

The Conservatory Orchestra has matured into a classy outfit, under the nurturing influence of conductors-mentors Chan Tze Law, Wang Ya-Hui and Jason Lai. Led by the eminent American conductor Robert Spano, the orchestra showed how the millions of dollars pumped into tertiary musical education at the National University of Singapore have been more than well spent.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was an unusual choice to showcase the ensemble’s strengths. It is his shortest symphony, comprising just a single movement which also happens to be his longest symphonic movement. Cast in humble C major, it is a paradoxical masterpiece that concentrated big ideas with astonishing compactness. It resounded with an epic breadth but was soon over in 21 short minutes.

Spano’s breathtaking view of its unfolding musical narrative was reciprocated by the young musicians with great responsiveness. The strings radiated a gorgeous sheen, one that blossomed with each crescendo, the warmth of which would be the pride of top professional orchestras. Brass and woodwinds shined at just the right intensities, always luminous but never overpowering.

The climactic wrenching string chord near the end came like an epiphany. The imagery was that of glacial ice, thawed by the sun’s rays, melting and becoming the source and sustenance of life itself. It was that sort of life-affirming performance that made the evening rather special.

Another true epic was Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, which at 50 minutes is the longest piano concerto in the active repertory. All too often, the piano solo becomes submerged by the orchestral forces. Thus the Conservatory’s piano studies head Thomas Hecht seemed determined to ensure that every note of his was clearly heard. 

With shoulders built like a lumberjack’s, he applied an overpowering heft to every chordal and octave passage in the opening two movements. It was arresting at first, often pungent and never bland, but the ears soon tired to a take-no-prisoners approach of piano as percussion. This was thankfully tampered by moments of filigreed lightness and poetry, which showed that Hecht was equally capable of utmost sensitivity.

There was a lapse of concentration during the Scherzo’s most frenzied page, but he recovered quickly. The best was reserved in the slow movement, where young cellist James Cowell’s beautifully sung solo set the mood for the emotional heart of the work, where the balance between piano and the orchestra’s marvellous support was close to perfection.

The mood then switched to jocularity for the finale, where the gaiety of Viennese waltzes and dollops of schlagobers (whipped cream) ruled to close the concert on a satisfying high. Hecht’s solo encore was also by Brahms, the “Edward” Ballade (Op.10 No.1), a summation of all the drama that had come and gone.

Two piano titans confer, Thomas Hecht with Albert Tiu.
("This Brahms' a bitch, you know!")

The loud cheers came from Thomas Hecht's piano studio.

A cell of cellists: Qin Liwei, Leslie Tan and Ng Pei Sian,
also known as The Cello Guys.
(from L to R, as if you didn't already know)

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