Enchanting lightness

REVIEW / CONCERT

CONSERVATORY STRINGS

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory/Tuesday

The greatest strengths of orchestras in Singapore have been in the strings. That is little surprise, given the history of rigorous training of string players, by the likes of violinist-pedagogues Goh Soon Tioe, Vivien Goh, Pavel Prantl and Kam Kee Yong.

This tradition continues in music education institutions under the watchful eyes and ears of Foo Say Ming (at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), Qian Zhou and Igor Yuze- fovich (both at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory).

This concert gives a glimpse of what is to be expected in orchestras of the future. It is very encouraging.

The 13-member outfit opened with Mozart's most famous serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a work which could easily be tainted with over-familiarity.

What one got was a freshness and litheness of sound, a homogeneity of texture because the players were keenly listening to one another and closely following the lead of first violinist Orest Smovzh. The Romanze had a lightness that was enchanting, but that was undone by the ensuing Minuet, which was taken too fast and with brusqueness. It was in the finale where tautness of ensemble restored much of the charm.

Much more challenging was Bar- tok's Divertimento, with its driving rhythms, rapid tempo changes and thorny dissonances. The ensemble created an earthy sonority. The slow movement conjured an aura of mystery, with the buzzing "night music" typical of Bartok's scores rising to a thrilling climax.

More folk dances leapt out from the finale's pages and the gypsy band had excellent solos from first violinist Li Ruoyao. There was time for a humourously banal serenade that got interrupted as niceties were swept away by the Balkan bluster. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work with concertmaster Yuzefovich as leader. His students' performance tonight was equally riveting.

The concert ended with Dvorak's ever-popular Serenade For Strings in five movements. Perhaps more time was devoted to the earlier works at the expense of this "simpler" work such that parts of it sounded exposed. It was still a fine reading but one which could have done with further honing.

The warmth of sound was retained. There was genuine lilt and a leisurely feel to the Minuet, in complete contrast with its counterpart in the Mozart, and the slow movement allowed the music to breathe. The fast Scherzo could have been played with more flexi- bility while parts of the rapid-fire Finale sounded a tad tentative.

However, the reprise of themes in earlier movements lent a nostalgic feel, before the work closed in high spirits. That and much of the concert could not have failed to bring a smile to concertgoers' faces.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Enchanting lightness'. Print Edition | Subscribe