Monday, 17 August 2015


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (14 August 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 August 2015 with the title "Music keeps Choo Hoey young".

The SG50 celebrations of the past week have brought sharply into focus the nation's achievements and a reflection of the people in history who made Singapore happen. It was thus appropriate that the first Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert held after the 50th National Day be conducted by its founding Music Director Choo Hoey, who led the orchestra from 1979 to 1996.

Now in his early eighties, Choo has lost some sprightliness in his step. The walk onto the stage appeared a little more effortful, but on the podium itself, he seemed revitalised. The spark of leading his charges and long-time friends in music-making returned, albeit for two whole hours.

The well-attended one-night-only concert opened unusually with Darius Milhaud's ballet La Creation du Monde (The Creation of the World). Scored for just 17 players, this was modern chamber music of the 1920s that embraced both the old and new worlds. Old because its form was classically conceived, even incorporating the fugue, and new because of that infectious Afro-American strain called jazz and the blues.

The performance bristled with a fervid beat, with solos by Tang Xiao Ping (on saxophone), Ma Yue (clarinet) and Rachel Walker (oboe) standing out. The balance of sound in the reverberant hall was however not favourable to the strings, as both violins, cello and double bass were virtually shut out by the winds, brass, percussion and piano.      

The orchestra's might also threatened to overwhelm the soloist in the next piece, Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. Thankfully, the young man on centrestage was Taiwanese violinist Tseng Yu-Chien, 1st Prizewinner of the 1st Singapore International Violin Competition in January. His annus mirabilis continued with winning 2nd Prize at the Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow. Although not an overtly showy perfomer, his playing was brimming with confidence.

A bright clarion tone, with perfect intonation, lit up his entry in the opening movement, and shone out like a beacon in the 2nd movement when orchestral volume could have got out of hand. The 3rd movement's variations on the Scottish tune I'm Down For Lack Of Johnnie found the best balance of all, and how his violin truly sang. The bellicose finale provided a stirring show of fireworks from all on stage, and the audience cheered and clamoured for an encore. The soft-spoken and thoughtful soul obliged with further purity of tone in the first movement of Bach's unaccompanied Second Sonata

The second half was The Choo Hoey Show, in the familiar warhorse that is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. If the listener had expected broad tempos and stolid posturings in the manner of Klemperer or Celibidache, one was to be surprised. Clocking in under 35 minutes, this was no slouch of a performance, nor was there the litheness and light textures that come with modern approaches. Choo demanded a rich, full-bodied sound through its four movements, and he got it.

The iconic 1st movement was brisk, tautly held together, but it never sounded hectic. The strings were given ample space to breathe in the slow movement, which brought out the work's lyrical best. The lightly traipsing 3rd movement was given more nuances than one suspected, with virtuosic ensemble playing in its agitated middle section. The expectant lead-up to the grandstanding finale was exciting, only bettered by the actual article itself. The brass - two French horns, two trumpets and three trombones – were in top form, and who would have thought Beethoven giving in its final pages such prominence to the humble piccolo?

The breathless close, brilliantly marshalled, brought out prolonged accolades for the revered maestro. There seemed to be one common thought that ran through the house: Music makes one young again.

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