Friday, 1 August 2014

RUSSIAN EXTRAVAGANZA! / Singapore National Youth Orchestra / Review

Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (30 July 2014

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 August 2014 with the title "Rah-rah Russian tunes".

This is certainly not the best of times to celebrate anything Russian, but the Singapore National Youth Orchestra had put so much preparation into this programme that it would be unfair to the young musicians to have cancelled the concert. At least the title could have been changed to something less offensive.

The opener, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture ranks as the most insincere work ever conceived by a great composer. For those who know his music, this paints a glorious and eternally jolly portrait of the Soviet Union, one of modern history’s most murderous regimes. Its brass fanfares, thrilling woodwind runs and slicked up string melodies sing of optimism and great hope for a Socialist utopia, one cruelly denied to many millions who had staked their lives on a fatal ideology.

The orchestra led by its Principal Conductor Leonard Tan gave a best possible account of its strident banalities, with much lustre and no hint of irony. The brass section, boosted by offstage colleagues placed on balconies in the hall’s first circle, have much to be proud of.

Coming as total relief were two concertos by German composer Felix Mendelssohn. The first was his very popular Violin Concerto in E minor, with Neville Athenasius Ang in the solo part. For much of the work, the chemical and biomechanical engineering graduate struggled with intonation but was able to overcome its technical hurdles with fluency and no little robustness. That he maintained his composure well when the audience of mostly youngsters was getting restless and noisy was to his great credit.

A better showing was provided by Benny Lim and Ralph Emmanuel Lim in Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.2 for clarinet and basset horn. This rather unusual work pitted two reed instruments of different registers in tandem and how the two Lims complimented each other so well like hand and glove. Within three short movements, they delighted in its witty repartee and struck a vein of humour that flowed like sparkling champagne.

The second half of the concert was devoted to just Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in F minor. One of his more highly strung and nervously charged works, conductor Tan coaxed from his charges a performance of rare eloquence and no little emotion without resorting to extremes in dynamics or tempi.

Despite a fluff in the opening Fate theme blared out by the French horns, this was a show of confidence which grew with each page. The first movement was taken at a moderate tempo, one that seemed slack initially but proved ultimately well-judged as it gradually built up to a head of steam that never flagged.

The slow movement’s plaintive oboe solo was beautifully crafted by David Yee, and the strings were superlative in the third movement’s massed pizzicatos, all of which were indicative of how strong the orchestra has become over the years. The torrential storm unleashed in the finale, a culmination of Tchaikovsky’s tormented personal life, was greeted with long and prolonged applause.

By which time, one might have also been persuaded that Tchaikovsky, despite being born Russian, was also a citizen of the world. 


Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Chang,

I really appreciate your review. However, I must disagree with you on your comment that the the title of the performance was offensive. Russian or not, all music deserves to be played and celebrated. And Russian or not, music at its best, is simply that. Music.

Nigel Alexander said...

In all honesty, I do not agree with your review about the concert. No doubt, Russia does not have the best of reputation now but this is no reason to bring politics into the world of classical music.

Rather, it would be more appropriate to enjoy and appreciate the pieces solely as a composer's gift to mankind.

You may critique the orchestra for their lack of technical abilities or anything that is musically related, but I do hope in future critiques that you leave politics out of the picture as this is just a group of young music enthusiasts trying to showcase their passion and love for classical music(something that we seldom see amongst our youths today).

Chang Tou Liang said...

While I respect your considered opinions, the timing of a mostly Russian concert titled "Russian Extravaganza!" seems inopportune at the time. I am not sure whether it ever occurred to the SNYO that celebrating things Russian was the right thing to do at this point of time.

The kids played marvellously and I am proud of their musical achievements. This is part of the growing youth orchestral movement taking place in Singapore now.

One thing for certain, this concert (with this title) would certainly not have taken place in Malaysia.

On the point of history, in 1984 after the Korean Airlines plane was downed by the Russians off Sakhalin island, the appearance of Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Borgacheva with the SSO (singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder) was cancelled. Given the outrage at that time, it was the appropriate thing to do. I am not sure whether people reflect on these things these days.

Anonymous said...

All events, whether performed by Youths or Professionals must take current/recent events into consideration and be sensitive to such happenings.

Music does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world.