Monday, 26 March 2018

Some Photographs from FROM BERNSTEIN TO COPLAND / The Philharmonic Winds

The Philharmonic Winds
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (25 March 2018)

It would seem unusual to see conductor Yeh Tsung lead an orchestra which is not the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. 

That should not be a great surprise since he was for 28 years the Music Director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in Indiana (USA) besides being the founder of the highly-regarded Hong Kong Sinfonietta. However, he did admit near the start of the concert that this was his first time conducting a wind orchestra. For a debutant leading Singapore's finest wind band, this is was an excellent effort which led to a highly enjoyable concert of Americana.

The concert opened with Leonard Bernstein's Slava!, a concert overture celebrating Mstislav Rostropovich's inauguration (hence his nickname being the work's title, which is also Russian for "glory") at Washington D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra in 1977. Much like his better known Candide Overture, it was a light and sparkling affair, full of Rossinian wit and humour, which the Philharmonic Winds brought out most trenchantly.

There was some insecurity of intonation in the highly-exposed beginning of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, but that soon settled as the band grew in confidence in a rather long introduction. The narrator reading Abraham Lincoln's words was Benjamin Chow, a young actor already well-known for his portrayal of another politician - Lim Chin Siong, in the local musical LKY

He has an assured way with words, carried with a stature that belied his tender years, thus making his all-too-short appearance a sympathetic and very believable one. If pressed to name an American actor whom he might resemble at this instance, I would say Gregory Peck.  

The first half concluded with the Four Dance Episodes from Copland's ballet Rodeo. Here the orchestra was in its element, projecting with lots of verve and energy. The solo trombone and trumpet were excellent in their comedic, split-second timing. High winds - oboe, flute and piccolo - distinguished in the slow movement (Corral Nocturne) while the oboe shined in the lilting Saturday Night Waltz. For the coruscating Hoedown, the audience was "tricked" into applauding prematurely, no doubt a ploy from the conductor himself, as the work wound to a joyous close.

In the second half, Copland's Clarinet Concerto received a most rapturous reading from soloist Desmond Chow. He brought out a very mellow sound, luxuriating in the moody blues of its slow beginning before upping the ante for the stupendously-helmed cadenza and the fast finale. In the latter, one might have hoped for a little more unbuttoned showing, but sometimes it pays to be a little cautious as the finish with the clarinet's fast-rising swoop was quite excellent. 

Judging by the number of wonderful performances of this work in recent times (including outings by the Singapore National Youth Orchestra and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra), one can only conclude the number of fine young clarinettists in Singapore is not negligible.     

Maestro Yeh Tsung points to the
direction of "Somewhere".

The concert closed with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which is an orchestral tour de force. From the opening finger-snaps to the collective shout of Mambo, this was a very invigorating performance dominated by the brass and an 8-person percussion crew. Besides the expected bluster, there were also tender moments, such as Somewhere and the Cha Cha, which were very well brought out, culminating in a wonderful fugue when one was least expecting it. 

After much prolonged applause, the maestro was coaxed into leading an encore: a reprise of the Hoedown from Rodeo. Not for the first or last time, premature applause erupted again, accompanied by the invariable laughter that goes with it. Whoever said concerts should not be fun?   

This was a very well-programmed concert which also happened to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth. It was delivered with the usual high-octane panache from The Philharmonic Winds, aided and abetted by the master entertainer that is Yeh Tsung.

The two Maestros: Yeh Tsung with
The Philharmonic Winds' Leonard Tan.

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