Impressive playing, but out of sync

Organist Margaret Chen tried to bring colour and variety to the solo part.
Organist Margaret Chen tried to bring colour and variety to the solo part.ST FILE PHOTO

REVIEW / CONCERT

VCH ORGAN SERIES - MARGARET CHEN STRING ORCHESTRA

Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng, violins; Margaret Chen, organ; Joshua Tan, conductor

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

Organised chaos seems the best way of describing Alfred Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1.

With all 24 players on the Victoria Concert Hall stage appearing to be doing their own thing and Shane Thio eagerly jumping from prepared piano to harpsichord and back again, occasional glimpses of identifiable musical ideas did burst through, like flames licking out of a nearly extinguished fire, but were immediately smothered by the mass of orchestral sound.

No wonder a good portion of the audience was profoundly perplexed.

Conductor Joshua Tan kept it tightly under control, but at the expense of the music's essential humour. Schnittke's score is renowned for its sense of the comic, but for these well-drilled musicians, this was all deadly serious stuff. Even Thio's silly little harpsichord tango failed to raise a smile.

Technically, there was extremely impressive playing all round, but the two violin protagonists, Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng, were in a class of their own.

Working in perfect partnership, they created a tangible feeling of unity and comradeship. Such close working relationships were not always evident elsewhere in the programme.

Margaret Chen and her accomplice had some fundamental disagreements over Bach's great Passacaglia and Fugue.

While Chen played the notes, the accomplice pushed out and pulled in the stops, manipulated the foot pedals and generally flitted around the organ like an over-attentive housemaid.

More than once, they bumped into each other - Chen would be merrily playing something sweet and charming when, suddenly, all hell broke out in the pipe department as a cluster of stops was drawn out unexpectedly. This clearly disconcerted Chen, who stumbled and spluttered until equilibrium was restored.

However, while it was by no means note-perfect, this was a performance driven by an intense communicative urge and searing sense of purpose. If to achieve such musical rewards, Chen needed to sacrifice some of her technical polish, it was a sacrifice well worth making.

Handel's Organ Concerto In B Flat Major also suffered from a breakdown in partnership, this time the almost inevitable consequence of the logistical nightmare of coordinating an orchestra on stage with the Victoria Concert Hall organ stuck against the wall with its back to the orchestra.

Chen did much to bring colour and variety to the solo part, while Tan made earnest attempts to keep it all together.

The end result was, though, decidedly furry around the edges, and there were moments when organ and orchestra were so out of sync that it came close to chaos.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Impressive playing, but out of sync'. Print Edition | Subscribe