Wednesday, 20 December 2017

CHRISTMAS CONCERT 2017 / Ensemble de la Belle Musique / Review

Ensemble de la Belle Musique
Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (18 December 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 December 2017 with the title "Ensemble's debut is a sugar plum fairy party".

Imagine going to a buffet and heading straight for the desserts to face an array of pastries, cakes, puddings, jellies, ice-creams and a chocolate fountain. Ensemble de la Belle Musique's (EBM) inaugural concert was the musical equivalent of a sugar plum fairy orgy, made more apparent by its Christmas theme.

The philosophy of EBM – founded by twin-pianists/composers Low Shao Ying and Shao Suan and Emmy-nominated composer Joseph Curiale - was to promote and perform only tonal and aurally beautiful compositions. Consciously rejecting atonalism, serialism, avant-gardeism, the idea was to present music players love to perform and audiences want to hear.

There was none of the bland soppiness associated with André Rieu, Richard Clayderman and their ilk. There was also no need for listeners to swallow an entire cheesecake whole as the pieces were short and palatable, each lasting from three to eight minutes. The ensemble comprising 22 musicians led by conductor Leonard Tan premiered 11 works by 11 composers from Singapore, Australia, United States of America, Denmark and Spain.  

There were two commissioned works, Dane Martin Åkerwall's The Snow Queen and Spaniard Ricardo Molla's Dulcinea. The former conjured a soundscape redolent of fairy-tale film music in two movements, while the latter played up contrasts in Chua Lik Wuk's violin and Eddie Sim's cello, its title highlighting the knight Don Quixote's unattainable dream.

The Australian Daxter Yeo had two works performed, Belle Reveries being a slow waltz for piano and strings while La Vie Est Belle unfolded sumptuously like a Mahlerian slow movement, a crescendo building up to a big climax before receding to quietness. Here is a composer who deserves to be heard again.

Fellow Australian Paul Kopetz's Island Christmas Dawn had Jonathan Lim's soprano saxophone rising to accompanying strings like a nascent sun, while American Michael Winstanley's The Ice Palace Waltz was an upbeat number more in common with waltzes from Shostakovich's Jazz Suites than Johann Strauss. American Kari Medina's Christmas Reveries shifted from moody minor to cheery major keys, closing with an effusive expression of warmth and happiness.

What about the five Singaporean composers represented? Yvonne Teo's Christmas Waltz opened with a “Once upon a time” introduction before a wistful and casually-paced three-quarter rhythm ensued. Germaine Goh's Christmas in June generated a feeling of mystique, but instead of snow there was sunshine, unleashed by the brass – Dixie De Souza's French horn, Kenneth Lun's trumpet and David Wong's trombone - for a big melody at its close.

Twin sisters Evelyn and Frances Goh's Please Think Of Me This Christmas (arranged by Jason Shahul) resonated like a K-Pop ballad before ending in totally agreeable C major. One suspects the final work, Around The World In One Night by Jon Tho, will be played the most. This was a jazzy big band romp alluding to popular Christmas songs in a most irrepressible of Santa sleigh-rides. There can be no better call to bring out the bubbly.

The star-studded ensemble included former SSO violinists
Yew Shan and Chua Lik Wuk, and the
twin sister-act of Low Shao Ying & Shao Suan.
Young composer Jon Tho speaks while
the Goh sisters look on.

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