Monday, 20 March 2017

FROM AN INVALID'S WORKSHOP / Philharmonic Chamber Winds / Review

Philharmonic Chamber Winds
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (18 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 March 2017 with the title"Impressive wind playing".

Wind playing in Singapore has advanced so much that the musical community now supports a number of wind orchestras. Judging by this performance by the Philharmonic Chamber Winds, the standard of playing in the best outfits is very high. This may be attributed to excellent coaching in the educational institutions, exemplified by personalities like Dutch oboist Joost Flach (presently Head of Winds at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) who conducted this concert.

Flach also played informal host by introducing the works, all by Austro-German composers who wrote for vastly differing genres. Best known was Johann Strauss Junior, whose waltz Kunstlerleben (Artist's Life) opened the programme. Its short introduction dragged a little but the 11 wind players maintained impeccable intonation throughout.

When the waltz rhythm kicked in, the playing picked up in pace and the Viennese dance was in full swing. There was genuine lilt, not an easy motion to maintain, but helped by Flach's bodily movements, swaying in tandem with the three-quarter time beat.

The concert's first half was lighter, and the entertainment continued with three songs by Kurt Weill from his musical theatre works. Kuala Lumpur-based Australian singer Sandra Wolf was appropriately attired in a low-cut black frilly gown and red feather boa as she launched into the Alabama Song from Mahagonny, a working girl's seach for "the way to the next whisky bar".

From English, she seamlessly switched to German for Surabaya Johnny (Happy End), where her dusky voice shone through the evocative and idiomatic arrangements by Wong Chee Yean, who also doubled on the piano. It was the familiar ballad Mack The Knife (The Threepenny Opera) taking on a jazzy and night-clubby vibe that closed the first part on a tipsy high.

Richard Strauss' modestly titled Sonatina No.1 for winds, also called "From An Invalid's Workshop", was the most ambitious undertaking. From the composer's late years, and imbued with the same autumnal mellowness abd kyricism as his Oboe Concerto, its three movements played for well over half an hour. For wind players, this is almost an eternity.

There was, however, strength in numbers. Among the 16 instruments were four French horns, five clarinets (including basset horn) and three bassoons (including contrabassoon, below). Together they produced a fulsome and highly resonant sonority that engulfed the hall. That this kind of depth and volume endured through its entire length was simply impressive.

The solo French horn was entrusted with some of the best melodies, and the busy counterpoint in the outer movements was well accounted for by the supporting instruments. The central slow movement titled Romance and Minuet was lighter, providing some respite and playing of much tenderness. The playful finale with its leaping figurations could have been tiring (and tiresome) for both player and listener, but the spirit and composure never flagged for a second. The audience's prolonged applause spoke volumes of the players' prowess.

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