Friday, 3 March 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Wednesday (1 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 March 2017 with the title "Advantage ensemble".

August 31 of 2016 will be remembered with much fondness, for that was the day when re:Sound, Singapore's first professional chamber orchestra, gave its inaugural concert. Its second concert conducted by Singapore Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor Jason Lai showed that all the  critical acclaim and good notices were fully justified.

The essence of chamber music lies in diminutive forces, with a small number of individuals listening and reponding to each other within a show of intimate cooperation. This was no better illustrated in avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's Ramifications, scored for just 12 string players, each with a different part.

With six players tuned a quarter-tone sharper than the others, the effect was one of deliberate aural disorientation through constantly wavering pitches. Like a floor that fluidly shifts under one's feet, the emanating sound evolved from an incessant buzzing, through high-pitched tinnitus to subterranean growls, all achieved with utmost control at low volumes.

This “music” then evaporated into the ether, leaving the conductor beating time in thin air and ambient silence. These startling plays on sonics will explain why Stanley Kubrick so effectively used Ligeti's music for his iconic movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.

Altogether more traditional was Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in G major with veteran Penang-born pianist Dennis Lee as soloist. His delivery of its opening chords was pivotal, a secure statement borne from wealth of experience, which defined the tenor of this reading.  His was a more classical-attuned view, of transparent textures, measured gestures and no little nimbleness, as opposed to the boisterously Romantic version offered by Nicholas Angelich recently with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Lee's Apollo was a world apart from Angelich's Dionysus, but both had much to offer in this  masterpiece. One factor that tipped to Lee's favour was the smaller ensemble, which revealed often glossed-over details besides providing sensitive accompaniment. The rapt conversation of Orpheus and the Furies in the slow movement was a lovely interlude before the unbridled jollity of the finale.

The programming of Mendelssohn's Third Symphony (also known as the “Scottish”) seemed like straying into SSO territory but no, this was a thoroughly enthralling account that revelled in the chamber forces utilised. No victim to Victoria Concert Hall's sometimes feared reverberance, the strings sang without inhibition, while woodwinds and brass rang with bell-like clarity.

Conductor Lai's tempos were excellently judged, the solemnity of the opening movement (evoking the ruins of Edinburgh's Holyrood Castle) contrasted well with the vigourous Allegro that followed. Storm clouds hovered menacingly but sunshine prevailed in this luminescent account, which also gloried in the snappy and mercurial Scherzo, and nostalgia of the song-like slow movement.

The martial finale did not strike a warlike posture for long, instead delighting in the ending chorale cast in the major key. Delivering victory without too much bloodshed, one looks forward to re:Sound's next concerts on 26 April and 2 July.

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