Monday, 1 June 2015

MASTERWORKS / ADDO Chamber Orchestra / Review

ADDO Chamber Orchestra
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Saturday (30 May 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 June 2015 with the title "Brilliant debut by new orchestra".

The birth of a new orchestra is a cause for celebration. The newest kid on the block is the ADDO Chamber Orchestra (ACO) led by young conductor Clarence Tan, which gave its debut concert at the School of the Arts. Coincidentally its first utterance, American modernist Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, was also performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Choo Hoey at its inaugural concert in January 1979. 

In semi-darkness, hushed strings heralded Erik Tan's solo trumpet which issued its rhetorical question from the dress circle. A woodwind quartet, placed on the illuminated gallery, pondered on its significance, only to be posed with further questions. This music-as-theatre piece of symbolism, performed with confidence and no little sensitivity, seemed to ask of this ensemble: where do we go from here?

Maybe the most obvious answer was Max Bruch's very popular First Violin Concerto with Christina Zhou as guest soloist. Her entry in the Vorspiel (“foreplay” or prelude) was clarity itself, forthright if not totally commanding, and this spelt out the conduct of the performance. She coaxed a sweet but not over-cloying tone and was lyrically disposed, which came through winningly in the slow movement.

Her technique held up well in the faster outer movements, but came close to crisis in the finale when a tuning peg suddenly loosened. The orchestra played on while she re-tuned her violin in a tutti and joined in quite seamlessly to close the work in a blazing triumph. Her coolness in the face of extreme duress is a testament to true musicianship and fortitude.

Other than some tentative woodwind entries at the work's outset, the orchestra played the supporting role very well, allowing Zhou full rein of her virtuoso abilities. Credit goes to conductor Tan's steady, no-nonsense leadership which would withstand the acid test in the concert's main work, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

The slow introduction to the opening movement was taken boldly and steadily, leading to the explosive Allegro which immediately established this young orchestra's ambition and credentials. Its responsiveness to the conductor's cues was spot on, and this continued in the second movement's variations which was well-paced and tidily laid out.

Brash enthusiasm, so characteristic of novice groups, was not the cards. This ensemble of recent music graduates and students was capable of subtlety and nuance too. The last two movements, which led to Wagner's description of the work as the “apotheosis of the dance”, were thrillingly dispatched. Fuelled by adrenaline, the players seemed to have boundless reserve as they tackled and overcame its hurdles head on and at blinding full speed.      

After its breathless conclusion, conductor Tan was gifted with a bottle of bubbly instead of the obligatory bouquet. Back to the unanswered question: where does ACO go from here? The easiest answer: its next concert, with Mozart and Prokofiev, on the cards takes place on 16 August. Another musical treat beckons.

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