Curious fact: The Singaporean who has had the most concertos performed this millennium is Bernard Tan, a National University of Singapore physics professor who composes in his free time. Following the first performances of his Piano Concerto (2002), Violin Concerto (2006) and Guitar Concerto (2013) by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, his Cello Concerto received its world premiere on Sunday at the School of the Arts.
It was performed by dedicatee Noella Yan with the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Tan.
Yan is a Singaporean cellist residing in Australia, and daughter of the orchestra's founding conductor Yan Yin Wing. This concerto marked her return to Singapore and to performing after a lay-off to look after two young sons. Any concessions to technical ability were dispensed with in this demanding work that called for utmost concentration and no little agility.
In a way, Bernard Tan resembles the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian in that he uses a few simple themes of local and ethnological flavour and works these exhaustively in a show of soloistic exuberance. The opening movement balanced a repetitive scherzo-like first motif with a lyrical second subject of Asian origin, while the central slow movement was a seamless Chinese melody of Tan's own device. Here, Yan's cantabile playing, full-voiced yet never cloying, invitingly came to the fore.
The finale took off in a head of steam, in a perpetual movement that obliged the soloist to jump through a seemingly unending series of hoops. The orchestra, hitherto mostly supportive in role, saw its flautist, oboist and clarinettist reciprocating in florid flourishes of their own. The ante had been upped, and following an acrobatic cadenza by Yan, the concerto closed on a dizzying aplomb.
The concert began with just the first movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. While that might sound incomplete, it had the effect of an overture. The orchestra warmed up quickly to conductor Tan's cues, and there was some very satisfying playing from the strings, especially the cello section in the movement's most familiar melody.
Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony closed the concert. Conductor Tan spoke informally about the moods that coloured the work, and the transformations from darkness to light as the music progressed. While there were moments in its four movements which taxed the musicians and thus revealing their amateur endeavours, these were more than made up for by the passion exhibited in the playing.
While clarinettist Ian Lam and French horn Darren Sim impressed with their solos, it was the general ensemble that rose to each climactic high with brass in imperious form. It was not difficult to follow the thread; pensiveness in the slow movement, a more relaxed waltz rhythm for the third movement, before the all-out triumph to end the symphony. This orchestra has made tremendous strides since the homecoming of its music director Adrian Tan from his studies. Long may this continue.