Thursday, 29 October 2015


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Tuesday (27 October 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2015 with the title "Enchanting lightness".

The greatest strengths of orchestras in Singapore have been in the strings. That is little surprise given the rigorous training of string players stretching way back by the likes of violinist-pedagogues Goh Soon Tioe, Vivien Goh, Pavel Prantl and Kam Kee Yong. This tradition continues in our music education institutions today under the watchful eyes and ears of Foo Say Ming (at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), Qian Zhou and Igor Yuzefovich (both at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory). 

This concert by the Conservatory's string ensemble in three repertoire works gives a glimpse of what is to be expected in the orchestras of the future, and it is very encouraging. The 13-member outfit opened with Mozart's most famous serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a work which could easily be tainted with over-familiarity.

What one got instead was a freshness and litheness of sound, a homogeneity of texture because the players were keenly listening to each other and closely following the lead of first violinist Orest Smovzh. The Romanze had a lightness that was enchanting, but that memory was undone by the ensuing Minuet, which was taken too fast and with uncharacteristic brusqueness. It was in the mercurial finale where tautness of ensemble restored much of the music charm.

Further steps more challenging was Bartok's Divertimento, with its driving rhythms, rapid tempo changes and thorny dissonances. Here the ensemble dug in, creating an earthy and rough-hewn sonority that was totally suited to the Hungarian folk idiom which the work basted in. The slow movement conjured an aura of mystery, with the buzzing “night music” so typical of Bartok's scores rising to a thrilling climax.

More folk dances leapt out from the finale's pages, and here the gypsy band was in full swing with excellent solos from first violinist Li Ruoyao. There was even time for a humourously banal serenade that got interrupted as niceties were swept away by the Balkan bluster. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work with concertmaster Yuzefovich as leader. His students' performance tonight came across as equally riveting. 

The concert concluded with Dvorak's ever-popular Serenade For Strings in five movements. Perhaps more time was devoted to the earlier works in expense of this “simpler” work that parts of it sounded exposed. Make no mistake, it was still a fine reading but one which could have done with further honing. 

The warmth of sound was retained, which speaks much for the string culture the young players inhabit. There was genuine lilt and a leisurely feel to the Minuet, in complete contrast with its counterpart in the Mozart, and the slow movement allowed the music to breathe. The fast Scherzo could have been taken with more flexibility while parts of the rapid-fire Finale sounded a tad tentative.

However the reprise of themes in earlier movements lent a nostalgic feel to the proceedings, before the work closed in high spirits. That and much of the concert could not have failed to bring a smile to listeners on this wet and hazy Tuesday evening.

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