Making opera music without vocalists or chorus

For its last Esplanade Prom Concert, the Orchestra of the Music Makers presented a programme of highlights from two operas and a musical.

There was not a singer in sight. No chorus massed at the back of the stage, no vocalists adding sparkle to the front. And with more than 100 instrumentalists in the orchestra, free space on stage was at a premium.

However, a handful of seats was scattered around the orchestra for those members of the audience brave enough to choose to sit in the thick of the action. It was probably pretty deafening for them, but they had the privilege of witnessing at close quarters an orchestra and a conductor on absolutely cracking form.

Gone are the days when one admired Chan Tze Law solely for his ability to draw good playing from the assorted volunteers who comprise the Orchestra of the Music Makers. Here is a conductor who interprets the music with real insight and a vividly communicative personality.

  • REVIEW / CONCERT

  • OMM PROM - PHANTASIA

    Orchestra of the Music Makers

    Chan Tze Law

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Sunday

Admittedly, he had his work cut out with this programme.

Instrumental versions of stage musicals rarely work well and with Christopher Palmer's brief Fantasy On Themes From La Boheme, the basic problem was clear. What makes this opera so popular are its moments of profoundly human pathos and its ultimate searing tragedy as revealed through Puccini's matchless writing for the voice.

Despite the lovely playing of concertmaster Chan Yoong Han, the violin is no substitute in providing emotional impact while, inexplicably, Palmer's Fantasy ends before it reaches the opera's tragic denouement.

Even with Andrew Lloyd Webber's original cut down to 35 minutes, Geoffrey Alexander's Phantasia On The Phantom Of The Opera was a good half hour too long.

Cast as a rambling double concerto for violin and cello, endless swathes of musical dreariness (enlightened by the drama of an unruly audience member remonstrating with a door steward) finally gave way to an ethereal moment as cellist Ng Pei-Sian introduced the Music Of The Night to which violinist Igor Yuzefovich added some delicious decorations. The ending, with the orchestra playing almost unbelievably quietly, was pure magic.

It was with the Suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier that Chan unmasked his own touch of magic. He milked the luscious Viennese waltzes for all they were worth, measured the rumbustious outbursts with finesse and transformed this musical potpourri into a compelling aural experience.

Perhaps the ecstatic climaxes lacked that indefinable "wow" factor, but otherwise this was a deeply impressive performance, showing that under Chan, the Orchestra of the Music Makers is not just good at putting on a big show, but also knows how to entertain an audience, whether in the stalls or on the stage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Making opera music without vocalists or chorus'. Print Edition | Subscribe