Concert review: Evocative winds of change from Nafa Wind and Brass Ensembles

A more ambitious title for a concert would have been hard to find, but the wind and brass ensembles of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts did what they could to showcase the diversity of of music written for their instruments over the centuries. These are two separate ensembles led by different conductors, and French horns were the only instruments common to both groups.

Nine works, five for woodwinds and four for brass, were performed on Thursday at the Lee Foundation Theatre. These were played not in chronological order but in a sequence alternating brass and winds that allowed the young performers to catch their breath. Historical context was provided by wind ensemble conductor Joost Flach who preceded each work with brief but helpful descriptions in lieu of programme notes.

Fred L. Frank's Overture For Brass, scored for four trumpets, three trombones, two horns and one euphonium, began the concert. Conducted by Terrence Wong, the short work included ceremonial fanfares, a waltz and cheerful circus party music to round up. The general warmth of the playing was a reassuring one.

Wind bands gained popularity in the 18th century, and numerous arrangements of popular works and symphonies, written with or without the composers' permission, arose to cater to the demand. Among these were Josef Heidenreich's arrangement of Mozart's Magic Flute Overture and Charles Bochsa's arrangement of Haydn's Symphony No.85.

The solemn masonic chordal opening of the former was taken a little too slowly, which resulted in a strain to the ensemble, but the fast fugal section had a good sprightly pace which brought out the ebullience of the piece. The latter's first movement, which included a double bass, was very well judged, befitting its rather regal nickname of "La Reine" or "The Queen".

Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli was famous for his brass choruses which played in the sanctums of St Mark's Cathedral during High Mass. To simulate the antiphonal sonics, eight brass players performed Canzon Septimi Toni No.1 on the steps on both sides of the hall, with Wong conducting in the centre. Even when individual players were not always flawless, the surround-sound effect was nonetheless impressive. The polyphony of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez's Tulerunt Dominum, performed on stage, provided a similar buzz to the ears.

Two contemporary works for winds were included. Malaysian composer Johan Othman's highly chromatic He Too A Simulacrum, That Another Person Was Dreaming Him was the evening's most demanding work for both players and listeners. Almost atonal, it operated within a narrow bandwidth of dynamics and emotion, and was clearly not meant to be understood at first listen. British composer John McCabe's Symphony For 10 Winds was far more accessible, and the playing was correspondingly more coherent.

To close, the winds displayed good unison playing in the first movement of Frenchman Andre Caplet's Persian Suite, while the brass had the last word with two Regimental Marches by Bohemian Franz Krommer. These jaunty and upbeat numbers gave a positive lift to an educational and enlightening evening of music for blown instruments.

stlife@sph.com.sg