Delightful euphonium performance in concert with SSO

REVIEW / CONCERT

SSO PRESIDENT'S YOUNG PERFORMERS CONCERT

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Tan (conductor), Kang Chun Meng (euphonium)

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

An impressive list of musicians has been featured in the President's Young Performers concerts over the years. Sometimes more than one talented young musician is bestowed the honour and, in recent years, wind players have been appearing more regularly.

This year, only one performer was picked, but it seems unlikely that we will soon see another like him for some time.

Kang Chun Meng, who has taken the local wind band scene by storm, plays the euphonium, normally seen and heard only in symphonic bands.

For this concert, he performed an even rarer euphonium concerto with a full symphony orchestra, playing with remarkable virtuosity and musicianship.

SSO associate conductor Joshua Tan opened the concert with Singapore-born composer Er Yenn Chwen's Symphonia Anamneseos. The title of the symphonic suite translates to "music of remembrance produced by several voices".

The five movements of Anamneseos, each with an evocative Greek name, are reminiscent of a mass, although less formal or grand.

Er's orchestration is highly listenable. His use of exciting rhythms and sweeping gestures makes the music sound rather film-like in a most positive way. The work benefited from empathetic conducting and a tight performance.

Tan has been busy in recent concerts with American, jazz, film and Japanese music. His return to a mainstay of the classical repertoire, Beethoven's heroic and powerful third symphony, Eroica, was welcome and successful.

He directed a very animated and powerful reading, with an opening movement that seemed to test the physical limits of his broad baton strokes. His brisk tempos gave rise to some moments of instability after the middle section string fugue, but he brought out good energy and vigour.

The second movement funeral march was mixed, more operatic than sombre, with the basses playing as if this were a Mahlerian dirge.

The symphony concluded strongly. The famous horn trio in the third movement was heroic and tuneful, and the string quartet in the final movement very finely played. Tan maintained good focus and momentum throughout and directed with authority right until the closing chords.

As the concert title suggests, the concerto by Kang was the highlight of the evening.

He played the Euphonium Concerto by Philip Wilby, composed in 1995 for a British student's graduate recital. The work fully exploits the techniques available to a euphonium soloist - triple-tonguing, glissandi and the lowest to the highest notes on the instrument.

The euphonium, whose name has its roots in the Greek word euphonos (sweet or good sound), is a brass instrument best described as a scaled-down tuba.

By its design, the tone of the euphonium is a rich, velvety blend of tuba and French horn. Unlike the horn, it does not have the facility to create "cuivre" (brassy) or "bouche" (hand-stopping the bell) tones, so Kang's challenge as a soloist was to stand out above the orchestra.

Fortunately, the 21-year old Kang, a member of the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band, has a suitably euphonious timbre and technique to match the most nimble cornetist, and he was fully convincing as a soloist.

Not overawed by the occasion or the presence of President Halimah Yacob at the concert, he played with consummate ease - ever steady, always musical. His sound was ample for the hall, although greater control of the SSO's dynamics by Tan would have made the performance much more interesting and allowed for a more dramatic finale.

The President's Young Performers Concert sometimes showcases our local musical gems who might not otherwise be heard in performance with an orchestra like the SSO.

It is rare enough to hear a euphonium in a concerto. To listen to a young, exceptionally talented player like Kang was a delight.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Delightful euphonium performance in concert with SSO'. Print Edition | Subscribe