Monday, 9 November 2015

FROM THE NEW WORLD / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (6 November 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 November 2015 with the title "Heady show of exuberance".

American music was on the cards of the Conservatory Orchestra's latest concert, and it began with Composition Faculty member Peter Edwards' newly commissioned work Brastri Per Celindano. Its title, in faux-Italian, is formed by parts of the words “brass, strings, percussion, celesta, winds and piano”. It is in fact a single-movement concerto for orchestra which taxes the instrumental parts to their limits.

Crunching dissonant chords, with winds and brass dominating, opened accounts and ears to its shifting textures which later disintegrated into pointillist shafts of sound with individual solo instruments having their say. Although atonal in character, the work drew attention to a play of tonal colour, which range from quiet whispers to aggressively hammered out chords and echoes. The use of col legno, with players tapping the wood of their bows on strings, also added to the mystique of its conception.

More accessible was Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto with Conservatory alumnus Yue Ziqi, now pursuing her post-graduate studies in New York, as brilliant soloist. Composed for jazz legend Benny Goodman, the light and transparent scoring for strings, harp and piano, left little doubt the object of its focus. Here Yue produced a hearty tone of pristine clarity, luxuriating in the long lyrical lines of its opening movement.

A showy cadenza paved the way to a most unbuttoned finale, where the traditions of jazz syncopation, country dance, Latin rhythms and Klezmer converged in a heady show of irrepressible exuberance. Caution was thrown into the wind as she blazed through its fiendish pages to a stratospheric close, much to the delight of an audience that loudly whooped its approval.       

The orchestra led by Jason Lai was attentive and sensitive in its partnership, and had the field to its own in Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, popularly known as the New World Symphony. Having composed it during his tenure as head of the newly-formed National Conservatory in New York, the Bohemian composer included elements of native Indo-American and African-American music woven into its symphonic canvas. 

Its enduring success comes from strong performances, such as the one delivered by this young orchestra. The slow introduction with violas, cellos and basses was perfectly weighted. This was answered trenchantly by solo French horn, and this is how great symphony readings begin. The drive and dramatic tension in the 1st movement was tempered by the plaintive flute solo which tenderly sang out the Swing Low, Sweet Chariot theme.

More excellent ensemble work came in the brass chorale of the famous Largo, which also highlighted the beautiful tone of Simon Lee's cor anglais. The well-drilled and disciplined forces followed up with more in the 3rd movement's rapturous dance, and the best was reserved for the valedictory finale. While brass and strings shone brightly in the climaxes, the tricky passage work for various instruments peppered all through the movement, details often overlooked, was very well negotiated.

In short, this was a model showcase for professional musical education in Singapore that will be hard to better.   

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