The music-making scene in Singapore now is such that almost every educational institution has an orchestra of its own, often allied with an established ensemble or prominent musical personality. Several years ago, the Anglo-Chinese School Orchestra had a joint concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shui Lan. On Wednesday at the School of the Arts' concert hall, the Raffles Symphony Orchestra, formed by string and wind players from Raffles Institution, partnered with Lim Yau and his Philharmonic Orchestra in a landmark concert.
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius's little gem Andante Festivo opened the event. Straight away, one could wax lyrical about the rich and homogeneous sound from the massed strings, no doubt aided by the venue's generously reverberant acoustics. The understated solemnity of the anthem was matched only by its sheer warmth. It is the favourite encore piece of Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi, who recently conducted it with the SSO.
This performance by the young students triggered just about the same response for this listener.
The concert also saw the Singapore premiere of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto, with leading collaborative keyboardist Shane Thio as soloist. The contrast with the first work could not be starker. This quasi-minimalist piece of 1980 highlighted persistent ostinatos from the strings, over which Thio's treadmill of scalic passages resounded as if woven into the rough-hewn homespun fabric of the music.
The D minor of the opening morphed into D major in the manic second movement, with the classic triad and its variants punched out with the relentlessness of a jackhammer. How the string players kept up with Thio's mercurial machinations was a testament to their alertness, discipline and good training. Just past the eight-minute mark, there was a brief second's pause for reflection before two abrupt chords emphatically concluded the spiel.
The much longer second half was reserved for one work, Beethoven's heroic Fifth Symphony. Conductor Lim opted for the brisker tempos favoured by contemporary readings over the more stolid versions of 50 or 60 years ago. Thus the famous Fate motif is repeated without the intervening pause one is sometimes accustomed to. This meant a tauter and more urgent account, a truer Allegro Con Brio (fast with liveliness) which also better suited the players and listeners.
If the first movement was succinct in its delivery, the slow movement exposed some of the ensemble's rawness, especially in sustaining longer singing lines. Restraint was the key in the third movement's quick-stepping gait as it strained at the leash before launching into the finale's C major triumphant march.
Here, the ensemble and brass with newcomer trombones (making their first appearance in a symphony) were at full blast. Caution was not thrown to the winds, though, as the procession was coherently and cohesively built up to a sturdy climax. Lim, veteran of the Esplanade's first complete Beethoven cycle, was a superb and steady guide, leading his charges ever closer to the Promised Land.
School orchestras were never meant to sound this good, but that is a new reality today.