Thursday 21st April 2011
Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Singapore National Youth Orchestra
conductor: Alexander Polishchuk
guest soloist: Lara St. John

Richard Wagner - overture to "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg"
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto D major
Darrell Ang - Fanfare for a Frazzled Earth (world premiere)
Cesar Franck - Symphony D minor

A Review by Hawk Liu

As I arrived at the concert hall to collect my ticket, I was greeted by the friendly staff of LANXESS and their PR arm, Phish Communications Pte Ltd. As a guest, I received a goodies bag that included a super audio CD of Lara St John's recording of Mozart's Concertos (No. 1 & 3, sinfonia concertante), as well as being invited to a very delicious pre-concert buffet!  That was a very good start to the concert!

The concert commenced with a short video introduction of the collaboration between LANXESS and the SNYO.  In brief, LANXESS is a Germany-based chemicals company that has chosen to support the arts by running a mentorship and cultural exchange programme for musicians of SNYO.  The video highlighted Lara St. John's giving masterclasses at orchestral sessions with the SNYO. There was also the recent trip to Italy by 3 flautists of the orchestra to learn from the master, Andrea Griminelli.

The pompous fantare of the Meistersinger overture started the concert proper. I was immediately greeted by the lush sounds of the string section, and I knew it was going to be a good evening - and it was. As I knew the overture quite well, I was looking out for all the nuances of the piece and almost everything I was hoping for was there. All the pomp, fanfare and lyricism were there. My only complaint for the piece was that the articulation in fast legato sections were less clear where single bowing was used. 

Next came the violin concerto. Lara St. John literally jiggled throughout the piece, dancing to the notes of the music. In her green flowing gown, she did look like a nymph dancing for Gaia, the green earth. The first movement was one where there could be a good variety of interpretation and the soloist did give her own to it, notably with the variations in dynamics. To be specific, there was a great range of dynamics used within single phrases and sometimes alternate notes were so soft I couldn't make them out. This occurred quite a number of times throughout the first movement. I did not enjoy missing the notes I didn't get to hear - I must qualify that I am still a fan of St. John's as I own a few of her albums. Nonetheless, St. John did give all the necessary oomph to the piece. It was an usual first movement for me because of the play on dynamics but the 2nd and 3rd movements were the regular Tchaikovsky for me and I was smiling through to the end. Although the orchestra played a supporting role in the work, I was keen to listen how they handled it. The first test for me was the first orchestral tutti in the first movement. When it came on, I was beaming! Everything was there! Tchaikovsky music features woodwinds prominently and the 2nd movement gave opporturnites for the principal flautist, clarinetist and oboist. Boy, did they shine! I was excited by what I heard. In fact, the whole woodwind section was good. At the end of the concerto, the conductor pointed out the woodwind soloists to the audience.

After the intermission, we heard Darrell Ang's premiere of his short piece, commisioned by LANXESS to exhort human beings to care for the environment. Ang was asked to compose an encore piece with oriental elements and so it included a Chinese folk tune. The piece was also influenced by Stravinsky, Bartok and Berg.  It's a typical 21st century piece with lots of dissonance and difficult notes to play. Now, I saw the percussion section put to work, finally. And they were really really busy! There was so much to see. It was a busy piece - the full orchestra was on the roll and not letting up. The Chinese folk melody came in the middle of the piece, played by the lower strings amidst the bustle. I did understand the relevance of the dissonance in probably depicting the industrial elements of the earth while the melody was playing but I did struggle to hear the melody with all that gong on at the same time. Perhaps, the 'industrial noise' could do more to not overpower the folk song, dynamically speaking.

The symphony in D minor was generally strong throughout, and quite French. French music has a habit of building prolonged climaxes that don't quite happen.... compared to Italian music.... I digress. The horn soloist featured extensively and quite well in the work. The horn is a notorious instrument to pitch and I think the soloist did a good job all round. The woodwind soloists were well featured again here, particularly the English horn. Good tone quality in all the soloists. The harp solo got a hearing in the symphony too. Although she played well, I swore the harp was not tuned to the orchestra's pitch! It was a good conclusion to the concert, although I did wish it was a work that contained more catchy motives as a concluding piece to the concert.

So, my first encounter with the SNYO was more than satisfying. I was literally smiling through much of the Wagner and Tchaikovsky because, musically, I got what I wanted out of them. The orchestral sound was generally lush and I must add that their entries were spot on. The horn section was a joy to hear because I know how notorious the instrument is. Much good has been said about the woodwinds. They were given their dues during the applause. I do like the balance in the strings. The large ensemble in the 2nd violins and violas was good in supporting the 1st violins. I think getting a few more cellists might complete the string sound. Just an opinion.

I should make mention of the conductor who, at least in my opinion, chose most satisfying interpretations for the evening's pieces. He brought out the 'romantic' sounds in the orchestra quite well. The tempi were great, not a dull moment. Thanks for doing such a great job with our musicians. 

I should mention a few hiccups too. I reiterate that the articulation passages which require single bowing for the strings were not clear much of the time, strangely, more in Wagner and Tchaikovsly than in Franck. I observed that only the middle third of the bow was used much of the time. I did wish they would use more of the entire length of the bow for stronger articulation and tone (even for soft passages). Horn players created the occasional 'noise' (putting down of mutes) in their quick switching of mutes and there were bows of the string players knocking the stands on a number of occasions. Alright, nothing difficult to look after. It was a most enjoyable evening and I thought the orchestra played to a very good standard in terms of sound. I was hearing a very good romantic sound in the orchestra. Good command of the late romantic style.  I shall be curious to see how they might handle Baroque - hopefully soon!


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