Energetic showing from young orchestra

REVIEW / CONCERT

AMERICA, AMERICA!

Singapore National Youth Orchestra, Leonard Tan - conductor

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Saturday

The theme for this concert, thought up by principal conductor of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra Leonard Tan, could not be clearer. It was a celebration of American orchestral favourites, including the obligatory dose of Hollywood music by John Williams.

There was a mix of works, which together formed a technically demanding programme that exposed the young musicians and the audience to key facets of American classical music from the late 19th century to today.

The punchy, complex rhythms and showy string writing in Leonard Bernstein's Overture to his opera Candide make it a favourite concert-opener and there was plenty of energy in the orchestra's playing. Inevitably, there were parts that were less than pristine, but this work is a handful even for seasoned orchestras and it was clear how much preparation the youth orchestra's players had put into it.

Tan walked the audience though key ideas and characteristics of the pieces that followed the overture. It was time well spent as he talked about the harmonies and imagery evoked by Aaron Copland, John Adams' use of minimalism and Charles Ives' foray into bitonalism.

The players did an excellent job handling the transitions of tempo, colour and mood in Copland's Appalachian Spring, navigating from tranquillity to joyous dance to calm simplicity. The work has a clarinet solo based on the Shaker melody, 'Tis A Gift To Be Simple, which was played with sensitivity and elegance.

The simplicity implied in the music belies its complexity.

While Tan steered the orchestra well through the different sections of the work, more attention could have been paid to phrasing and balance among sections.

It was the two colourful miniatures after the intermission - Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine, a post-minimalist fanfare; and William Schuman's orchestration of Ives' Variations On America - that seemed to resonate with the young musicians most this evening. The diving pulse of Adams' joyride brought on a surge of adrenaline while Ives' cheeky dissonances brought smiles to the players' faces.

The atmosphere lightened with Williams' Star Wars Suite For Orchestra. It was performed in conjunction with characters in costume acting out lightsaber duels in the hall, but not at the expense of the music. The musicians lapped up Williams' sweeping melodies and solos from horn, flute, oboe and cor anglais were played with bravura.

The orchestra continues to thrive under the management of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This concert saw a maturing of the wind and brass sections and Tan's clever programme was a great way to introduce his players to an important segment of the orchestral repertoire.

His narration and engagement with the audience was most commendable, helping the musicians and listeners get the most out of the music in a scholarly yet approachable manner.

A youth orchestra is a perpetual work in progress.

In this concert, there was room for greater finesse and attention to detail. Tan's conducting seemed to restrict dynamics to either very soft or loud and, too often, he allowed the wind and percussion sections to overpower the strings.

On the other hand, there was an abundance of energy, optimism and technical ability in the playing and the brashness and spunk heard in the second half was just what was needed for the music.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Energetic showing from young orchestra'. Print Edition | Subscribe