Friday, 17 October 2014

BEETHOVEN'S FIFTH / Penang Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

Penang Philharmonic Orchestra
Dewan Sri Pinang, Georgetown
Sunday (28 September 2014)

An edited version of this review was published in The Star on 16 October 2014 with the title "The Penang classical scene is building up momentum with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra".

Penang is already well-known internationally as a UNESCO World Heritage city, and for its tantalising and mouth-watering hawker food. Someday it might be even famous for its music. This is a very bold prediction that I make, but it has a precedent – in Singapore. Today, the Lion City has the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, occupied by world class ensembles like the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and its best amateur counterpart the Orchestra of the Music Makers. Concerts and artists in Singapore are noticed and reviewed internationally for the quality of the music-making. That can happen in Penang too, but it needs time, lots of hard work and the firm commitment of state or governmental support.

I had the fortune of spending an afternoon in the company of the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), an amalgamation of Penang’s amateur symphony orchestras that have for decades performed spottily over the calendar year. Several years ago, these were merged into the PPO, which enjoys funding from the state government. It now has a definitive concert season, and an administrative cum performing home in The Star, Pitt Street which houses a small concert venue. For major events, PPO performs at the 1000-seater Dewan Sri Pinang, which is a space similar to the Singapore Conference Hall, where the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performs.

Dewan Sri Pinang by night.

Dewan is a cavernous multi-purpose hall more suited for political party conventions, and has a dryish acoustic that does not flatter the best of orchestras. For this concert, the stage was sealed off and the PPO brought into the stalls. This ensured that the orchestra played very close (within sneezing distance) of the audience, which was an advantage to all concerned. The acoustics became less of an issue, and musical communication became paramount.

The Penang Philharmonic in rehearsal.

From what I learn, Penangites have never had the privilege of enjoying a Beethoven symphony or a Rachmaninov piano concerto cycle. This concert conducted by Singaporean conductor Chan Tze Law (Principal Guest Conductor of the PPO) and featuring guest soloist Filipino Albert Tiu (professor of piano at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory) was a first step towards fulfilling this reality. In many ways, the results were very encouraging and a big stride in the right direction.  

The Penang Philharmonic conducted by
Chan Tze Law (Photo: The Star)

The concert opened with Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville, a staple of sure-sell curtain-raisers. On conductor Chan’s downbeat, the orchestra responded with the two opening chords perfectly in sync. This was the very signal of intent that the young ensemble was going to work things out together, with one single cohesive mind. The thinness of sound will be filled in with time and experience, but it is the spirit that was dominant throughout the performance that will stand the orchestra in good stead. It captured well the comedic elements of the music, and a head of steam soon built up with each patented Rossinian crescendo. A good start it certainly was.

Those familiar with pianist Albert Tiu will know what to expect from him in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in C minor. His blend of passion and fire in the bittersweet work and virtuosic flourishes are par for the course, and the excitement he generates makes each performance special. The way the PPO responded to him and conductor Chan’s direction was fully in the service of the music. How the strings sang in the first movement’s opening theme over Tiu’s barrage of arpeggios made this moment stand out, leading to an impassioned climax. The solo French horn towards the end was also excellent, yet another indication that the young musicians not only play well as a group but also individually as well.

More was to follow in the slow movement, and again the solo clarinet and woodwinds did themselves proud while supported by the piano’s ruminations. The strings again distinguished in the lush restatement of the main melody with the piano’s chords in full tilt. There were lots of tricky bits in the finale, most notably the fast central interlude and the furious fugato. The orchestra kept time perfectly in the treacherous passages where even professional orchestras sometimes find themselves unstuck. All this leads to the grand apotheosis with the big tune, and this was where the new Steinway D shone; Tiu’s emphatic chords resounded above the throng and the balance at the concert’s most exciting moments came close to perfection. This is not an easy concerto to accompany, but the PPO did a very good job. This is as close to professional as a group of young musicians can possibly muster.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor filled the second half of the concert. Like the Rossini that began the concert, the famous opening four notes and its repetitions were hammered spot on cue. Where hesitation or accidents may happen, these were safely negotiated as the young musicians followed every beat and step of the conductor, and there was no letting up in this essentially monothematic movement. The lingering oboe solo was also handled expertly, a brief respite before the orchestra began its onslaught of Fate knocking at the door.

If the orchestra betrayed any signs of inexperience, it would have been in the second and third movements. The slow movement is the most difficult to pull off because of its meandering variations, which need to breathe in its ebb and flow, and sustained lines which can weary younger players. The third movement with its elusive shifts in pace from a quietly surreptitious slither to a goose-stepping march (a variation of the 1st movement Fate motif) also proved a real challenge, but it cannot be said that the players did not try their best.

The transition into the blazing finale was well worked out, as the orchestra responded to conductor Chan’s directions almost instinctually, and the expansion of sound provided a chill to the spine as the broad striding theme of the last movement got underway. Here was a mirror of the first movement, with very disciplined playing but one that strained and tugged, and surged ahead on a well-controlled leash. The brass was on superb form for the joyous expression of ultimate triumph, and they did not need further encouragement. What of the very steady timpani player, whose beats marshalled the forces like a battlefield general? A final burst of adrenaline brought the symphony to a highly satisfying close, that was greeted with a chorus of cheers. The audience was rewarded with an encore: Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in G minor (Op.46 No.8).

The Penang Philharmonic has the potential of going very far, even turning professional sometime in the near future. Penang has a growing, enthusiastic yet discerning audience which does not deserve anything less.

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