Saturday, 7 May 2016

MASTERWORKS / ADDO Chamber Orchestra / Review

ADDO Chamber Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Thursday (5 May 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 May 2016 with the title "An enjoyable outing on the Calm Sea".

For its second concert of the year, the ADDO Chamber Orchestra performed an interesting mix of rarely-heard and standard repertoire works. Mendelssohn's Calm Sea And Prosperous Voyage is not exactly one of the German composer's most popular concert overtures, but it provided the orchestra a good warm-up as a curtain-raiser.

Its slow and deliberate opening, a chorale-like theme, was well handled by the strings. A fine control was immediately established from conductor Clarence Tan's baton, which was steady and well-judged. A flute solo then heralded the fast section which sailed through swiftly, as if caught by the wind.

The cellos were in fine form, and even when the music took on a more discursive note, the tension was not allowed to flag. A fanfare from the trumpets near the end did not quite get its desired effect but an exciting close was guaranteed.

Next came the Singapore premiere of American-born composer Michael Baker's Contours, which had double bassist Li Xu and harpsichordist Gerald Kendrick Lim as soloists. This 13-minute work was a neoclassical concerto grosso, with Li's deep-set string voice and Lim's delicate tinkling providing an interesting contrast of timbres.

Even as unwieldy as a bass could be, Li's part called for no little nimbleness in bowing and plucking. There were some intonation issues in the faster first section but these were offset by genuine lyricism in the slower second section which ended on a quiet and gentle high.

As with the last ADDO concert, there was a short “show and tell” session, this time involving the bass. Li introduced the audience to a mini-bass, a 1/32th of his instrument, which could be played by a child of four. There was a demonstration with Scott Joplin's The Entertainer with Li supplying the melody on the “adult” bass while ADDO member Damien Kee provided accompaniment on the “baby”. A toddler from the audience was also invited to pluck on a string.

Without an intermission, the concert continued into Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, also known as the Pastoral Symphony. Such a work could be tainted with familiarity, but conductor Tan ensured the music coaxed from his charges remained fresh and unhackneyed. What a chamber orchestra cannot provided in volume and depth, it made up with sharpness and vitality.

The opening, with bagpipe-like drones, was taken at an appropriately brisk pace, which seemed just right for Beethoven's protagonist arriving in the countryside in high spirits. The tempo broadened for Scene By The Brook, but was not allowed to meander. The reward at the end was fine solos from flute, oboe and clarinet, mimicking the serene call of birdsong.

There was some ungainliness in Merry Dance of the Peasants, and first violins could have done better to get a grip on its boisterous rhythms. Beethoven's raucous evocation of The Storm was excellently realised, with the timpani's thumps and rolls simulating thunder. As the sun gradually ascended from behind dark clouds, the warmth radiating from the orchestra as a song of thanksgiving made sure this programmatic outing was an enjoyable one. 

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