Saturday, 5 March 2016

TRANSFIGURED NIGHT / NAFA Project Strings / Review

NAFA Project Strings
Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (3 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 March 2016  

The subject of a man's love for a woman superimposed on a canvas of late Austro-Germanic musical Romanticism was the theme for this all-strings concert. It was also a showcase of the impressive Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' Project Strings, formed and led by Singapore Symphony Orchestra first violinist Foo Say Ming since 2012.

The music had previously been heard in separate concerts by Foo's elite string band re:mix. However, this evening's coupling of Mahler and Schoenberg's music had a strong synergism because of their shared compositional idioms and estranged relationships with their respective spouses, all set in fin de siecle Vienna  This was highlighted in helpful programme notes written by  students rather than their lecturers.

Narrator Angel Cortez set the tone by reading a love letter and the strings took off with Adagietto, the 4th movement from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. One of his most serene creations, it began with the gentlest of whispers and a hint of rhythm provided by Tan Li Shan's harp. This finesse of control, of hushed voices and tender caresses, spoke volumes of Foo's charges, as the music wound its way to a yearning passionate climax before ebbing into silence.

This movement was merely a third of the length of the next work, Arnold Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, or Transfigured Night. Originally scored for string sextet (two each of violins, violas and cellos), its amplification for string orchestra is the modernist composer's most performed work. Youthful and tonally based, it far outstrips all of his atonal compositions in terms of popularity by a long chalk.    

It was inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem in German about a man and woman who take an evening walk. She reveals that she is with child, but not by him. Instead of rejection, he offers love and warmth, with the promise he will regard the unborn infant as his own. The work is thus a rollercoaster of emotion, from tension and uncertainty, to overwhelming feelings and finally love and acceptance.

English transliterations were projected on a screen above as the music unfolded, with gentle violas making the first statement. Foo's leadership was one of directness and honesty, never one for histrionics nor superficial effect for its own sake. He coaxed a rich homogeneous sonority from his 35 players, which moved as one co-dependent entity through its half-hour duration.

The music mirrored the poem's narrative, traversing from darkness to illumination, and encompassing a whole spectrum of shadows and half-lights. There were occasional episodes of thinness in string sound but these were merely transitional. The frenzied development, tension-laden and angst-filled, provided some this performance's most gripping moments.

The final denouement, amounting to a lengthy musical sigh of relief, returned the massed strings to the calm of perfect equanamity. Expect more from this dynamic group of string players, and the many future orchestras they will populate in years to come.  


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