Thursday, 3 November 2016


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (1 November 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 November 2016 with the title "Colourful nod to Beethoven".

There was a Hungarian flavour to the all-Beethoven programme by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra in its latest concert. Guest conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy comes from an illustrious tradition of Hungarian conductors including Georg Solti, George Szell, Ferenc Fricsay, Eugene Ormandy and Fritz Reiner. Leading the Conservatory Orchestra for a second time in concert, he brought an old world charm to what might have been standard orchestral repertoire.

Breaking from tradition, he addressed the audience before two works, briefly explaining Beethoven's inspirations and intentions. The concert opened with the brief King Stephan Overture, composed for the 1812 opening of the grand theatre in Budapest. Named after the founding monarch of Hungary, its evocation of the Hungarian spirit included long-held lines alternating with faster music of a courtly and celebratory nature. The orchestra responded well to the conductor's cues, bringing out a spirited reading with textural colour and rhythmic vigour.

Next, the orchestra accompanied Hungarian-born pianist Andras Schiff in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto in C major (Op.15). Sensitive in every way, the soloist was allowed to shine in an ultimate expression of chamber music. Schiff's account was not barnstorming, but measured and delicate to every nuance and detail. It was interesting that he observed the single F natural “wrong note” in the 1st movement, which came about because keyboards in Beethoven's time did not include the high F sharp within its range.

He also played chords, octaves and accompanying figurations during the orchestral tuttis, as if he were part of the general ensemble. The 1st movement cadenza was eventful in its storm and stress, capped by a loud chord followed by a cheeky soft broken chord. Beethoven's spirit would have heartily approved of this subversive and subtle humour that enlivened the music.

Gracefulness reigned in the slow movement, almost a pas de deux between piano and the orchestra's excellent clarinet principal Jang Zion. More crispness and light-hearted banter lit up the final Rondo, which leapt about with an irresistible joie de vivre. And there were two encores from the ever-generous Schiff, two Beethoven Bagatelles from Op.126. How prescient it was that the second encore included a hurdy-gurdy's bucolic drone, a most apt prelude for the Pastoral Symphony of the second half.

Takacs-Nagy adopted a comfortable pace for the orchestra to amble in the symphony's 1st movement, which relived “happy feelings on arriving in the countryside”. The gently lapping rhythm of the 2nd movement, Scene By The Brook, was bliss itself, answered by the chirpy bird-calls from the flute, oboe and clarinet.

The winds distinguished the 3rd movement's village dance, with perfect timing from the oboe, bassoon, clarinet and French horn, before the perfect storm, where the timpani hurled thunderbolts while the shrill piccolo rode the wind. Beethoven's only slow movement finale was a hymn of thanksgiving, played with an overarching warmth with the message that all's well with the world. Conductor Takacs-Nagy's final gesture of pointing to the heavens above said it all.   

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