Monday 25 September 2023

PRESIDENT'S YOUNG PERFORMERS CONCERT 2023 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (23 September 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 September 2023 with the title "Pianist Hao Jia comes of age in President's Young Performers concert".


This year’s President’s Young Performers Concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra saw several firsts. It was President Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s first attendance at this august annual event which began during President Ong Teng Cheong’s term during the 1990s. It also marked the first time SSO performed Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto in Victoria Concert Hall since its move to Esplanade in 2003.

Where's Wally? Presidential edition.
Here's the new President of the republic.
Photo: Michael Huang

The most important first, however, was 23-year-old Singaporean pianist Hao Jia’s debut performing this “Everest of piano concertos” with an orchestra. It was a performance of unashamed bravura and technical mastery that even a seasoned veteran would have been proud of. Wang Huang Hao Jia, as he was known while schooling at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts School of Young Talents and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory (under the tutelage of Fang Yuan and Albert Tiu), has come of age.


Multitudes of notes hardly fazed his steel-cladded technique. Also capable of singing lyricism, he was unafraid of projecting at levels way above the dense orchestral textures. There was a tense moment when a string snapped midway through the first movement, but he forged ahead fearlessly nonetheless, culminating in the no-holds-barred solo cadenza. He performed the longer and thornier version, generating a pulverising brilliance reminiscent of famous recordings by Grigory Sokolov and Lazar Berman.   

Parental pride:
Hao Jia gets filmed.

Led by Associate Conductor Rodolfo Barraez, the orchestra breathed true Slavic pathos and melancholy in the slow Intermezzo, setting the mood for more of the Russian composer’s brooding. By its skittish waltz episode, it was clear that Wang was actually having fun. With fear and trepidation held at arm’s length, he romped like a juggernaut through the breathlessly exciting finale to the loudest of cheers heard in this series. His reading also cast into the shade the last SSO Rach 3 heard at this venue, played by Andrei Gavrilov in 2000, no less.


The audience thinned considerably for the second half, which showcased Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, also known as his “Scottish” Symphony. It was a pity as those who left early had missed something special. Barraez, who was awarded first prize at the Hong Kong International Conducting Competition earlier this year, conducted the 40-minute work wholly from memory. This was no stunt, but clear indication of how its narrative would unfold.


From the solemnity of its long opening movement, inspired by the ruins of Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh, the music evoked mystery and tension. Its windswept vistas and chill factor were clearly palpable in its development, stark contrasts provided later in the sunny Scherzo's cheerful reel inspired by folk music.


Orchestral textures were kept light and buoyant, with string sonorities being particularly transparent. The slow movement never hinted of drag, while the finale’s martial strains flexed muscles, eventually letting loose with a triumphant and heroic end. After conductor Barraez stepped off the podium, he never got back up. This spoke volumes, as he simply wanted his charges to share the plaudits they truly deserved. 

Hao Jia's teachers: Fang Yuan and Albert Tiu.

Hao Jia and Tiudents having a blast.

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