Saturday, 15 April 2017

QIN LI-WEI & YANG YANG: BARBER & RACHMANINOV / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (13 April 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 April 2017 with the title "Romantic fare greeted with wild applause".

There was a time during the middle of the last century when it was unfashionable, even retrogressive, to be a composer with Romantic inclinations. Tonality and the ability to write a good tune are now back in vogue, which explains why Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff are among the most regularly performed of 20th century composers today.

Late Romanticism ruled the Conservatory Orchestra's latest concert, conducted by young prize-winning Chinese conductor Yang Yang. Barber's Cello Concerto was given a rare performance by Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei, who swallowed its host of technical and musical challenges whole.

The orchestra did its part by delivering its introduction well. Filled with tricky woodwind solos, essentially the opening movement's motifs and themes, this heralded Qin's imposing entry. His cello tone was incisive and searing, yet filled with tenderness for lyrical passages to shine through. Also thorny and rhythmically exacting, the seemingly opposing qualities were reeled off with stunning aplomb, culminating in a virtuosic cadenza.

It was a mistake to have allowed latecomers entry during the short pause between the first two movements. The tardily nonchalant and noisy manner in finding their seats despoiled the slow movement's idyll between cello and solo oboe. Inappropriate applause after the movement also jarred, far more than the occasional flat brass entries that came before.

It took the finale's heroics, with Qin leading the charge, that the concerto's conclusion was greeted with rowdy applause. He obliged with two exquisite solo encores in Giovanni Sollima's Alone and Peteris Vasks' Pianissimo from Book (Gramata), the latter requiring several rapt moments of wordless vocalising in harmony with the cello.

The second half belonged to Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, the second time the Conservatory Orchestra has programmed it. The previous occasion was in 2009, conducted by American pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher in Kent Ridge. Conductor Yang's charges this evening are arguably a finer cohort of musicians, and the manner in which they began the 55-minute long work was exemplary.

The expansive tempo adopted was in no way at risk of falling apart. When the main Allegro section arrived, there was a sense of joyous release. The development was exciting enough, but if it were laced with more impetuosity and wildness, the impact would have been greater. The Scherzo was well-marshalled despite the high speeds involved, and the Tchaikovskyan outburst at its centre could not have been better done.

By the Adagio, one was grasping for superlatives. Pride of place went to clarinettist Jang Zion for his characterful solo, borne of a ripe, creamy tone that will remain long in the memory. The trance-like sequence of solos incanting the movement's main theme, performed with consummate skill, underlined the music's Russianness. The rapturous finale, whipped into an ecstatic ride with  surging runs, was also a joy. That visceral thrill elicited the most rabid of ovations, which was the least this evening's unabashedly Romantic fare deserved.     

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