Monday, 20 November 2017


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra et al
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (18 November 2017)

A very special concert was held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Johann Strauss the Younger’s most famous waltz On The Beautiful Blue Danube, which was composed in 1867. The concert conducted by eminent Hungarian maestro Gabor Takacs-Nagy (this year’s Ong Teng Cheong Visiting Professor of Music) featured the strings of the YST Conservatory augmented by 12 string players from four European musical academies (Hannover, Graz, Budapest and Bucharest) representing some nations through which the mighty Danube flows. The ambassadors of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania were all present at this concert, which had been fully subscribed just a few days after its announcement.

How does one build a programme around the Blue Danube Waltz? Takacs-Nagy wisely chose string works by composers from the represented nations, music by Dvorak (Bohemia), Enesco (Romania) and Bartok (Hungary) as starters and main course before the Viennese dessert. He spoke before each piece, providing lots of personal insight in a totally informal and avuncular manner, which the audience appreciated.

Two movements from Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings made for a delightful opening. As one might expect, the string sound was sumptuous, and one could really feel the musical sunshine described by the conductor radiating from the finale. If Dvorak sounded light, two movements from Georges Enesco’s Octet provided more texture and contrapuntal fibre to the entrĂ©e. In this version for string orchestra, a greater volume of sound was generated, beautifully contrasted by the fine solos played by concertmaster Oszkar Varga from the Liszt Academy.

Arguably the best performances came in the 2nd and 3rd movements of Bartok’s Divertimento. The tremendous tension built up in the slow movement was palpable, with each jerky dotted rhythm phrase multiplied manifold to represent the tragedy and pain that was to befall Bartok’s homeland during Second World War. This world weariness gave out to a sense of joy in the rapturous finale, the vigorous rhythms of which were literally danced out by Takacs-Nagy on the podium. Seldom has one experienced such an unfettered show of exuberance among the players and conductor.   

Woodwinds, brass, percussion and harp joined in for the Blue Danube Waltz, for which Takacs-Nagy shared more of his childhood memories living in Budapest just a few minutes from the river. He could smell the river, and certainly he has the feel of music’s waves of waltz rhythm. It took some warming up from the brass in the introductory opening but before long, the lilting journey was underway. The secret of playing waltzes is not in keeping strict rhythm throughout but allowing the three-quarter time to heave and breathe through its course. And that was what the audience got, a reading of true vitality and rare feeling. The joy expressed by all the musicians on stage was clear to see, hear and feel.

As an encore, the orchestra offered Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5 (from the only German among the composers), and Takacs-Nagy humbly asked for permission to play the Blue Danube once more. Needless to say, that was most welcome, and it was double the pleasure this time around. 

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