Monday, 16 March 2015

WEBERN & SCHUMANN / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (14 March 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 March 2015 with the title "Webern, Schumann cast in new light".

The Austro-Germanic coupling of music by Anton Webern and Robert Schumann continued for a second evening with a concert by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Jason Lai. Early in Webern's output were his larger orchestral works, which were opulently orchestrated besides being his least forbidding.

His Passacaglia Op.1 carried off from the final movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, which had been written in the form of a passacaglia. The theme comprised just eight notes, crisply played by pizzicato strings. What ensued was a continuous set of very short variations on this 8-note ground bass, which got increasingly complex as the work progressed. What conductor Lai got out from his young players was clarity and precision, which became more admirable as the textures got increasingly dense. The underlying pulse never flagged and there were excellent violin solos from concertmaster Hong Mengqi, summing up the overall high level of playing.

The orchestra was joined by five members of the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées for the Schumann works, beginning with examplary partnership for Singapore-born British pianist Melvyn Tan in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. The piano was placed forward of the orchestra, instead of alongside it, and this definitely enhanced its projection. There was no chance of Tan being submerged by orchestral forces.

Here was no run-of-the-mill reading as Tan chose to heighten the tension of his solos by varying accents and phrasing, bringing out more bristling and even unexpectedly prickly aspects of the classic. Purists may be scandalised as they have yet to encounter Schumann in such rude state of health, but there was no denying its vitality, which emerged in the treacherously tricky finale as pure joy. Witnessing Tan's elan in his final act as Artist-in-Residence at the Conservatory was a jubilant culmination of sorts. Clearly ecstatic at the audience's reception, he played two lovely encores, Schubert's filigreed Impromptu in A flat major (Op.90 No.4) and Schumann's Träumerei.        

The second half opened with Webern's transcription of the Ricercata from J.S.Bach's A Musical Offering. Once again, the orchestra displayed a keen understanding of its counterpoint with clearly defined lines brought out vividly. Woodwinds and brass distinguished themselves in this piquantly orchestrated number, a showcase of Webern's klangfarben or tonal colour.

French horns also had a field day in Schumann's Third Symphony, also known as the Rhenish, but that was only part of the story. Conductor Lai's taut and tidy account did not stint on the music's grandeur, which can sound overblown and stodgy under less inspired minds. The opening chord was out of the first bar pf Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and the first two movements were distinguished with broad striding sweeps. Emboldened, the slow movement's lofty edifice, the composer's vision of Cologne Cathedral, was illuminated with glorious sunshine.

The finale began with a gentle amble, and soon built up a head of steam as the forces rallied to a glowing end. Schumann has been maligned as an orchestrator, but his art was a direct extension of Beethoven's and he clearly knew what he wanted to achieve. This performance delivered his intentions on a silver platter, and made nonsense of those prejudices. More power to the young orchestra for being persuasive myth-busters.

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