Concert review: Expect good things to come from NAFA Project Strings

NAFA Project Strings is the brainchild of Singaporean violinist Foo Say Ming, with the aim of promoting excellence in string playing among music students at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Its various concerts since 2012 have covered the bread and butter of the string repertoire, with a keen emphasis on ensemble work rather than solo virtuosity.

Its latest concert on Thursday at the Lee Foundation Theatre, entitled Death And The Maiden, began with the Aria from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 which employs eight cellists accompanying a singer. Young Indonesian soprano Isyana Sarasvati, one of NAFA's most promising voice students, has a bright ringing voice well-suited for coloratura arias. However more shades of subtlety could have been employed in this sensuous, even mysterious song, which is mostly wordless.

The cellos first provided a background rumbling counterpoint, before emerging with the glorious melody on its own. They did so with an intensity that closely matched the singer's. It was a pity that the fast and trickier second movement, which would have revealed different aspects of both skills, had been omitted.

As a prelude to the main work, Franz Schubert's original lied Der Tod Und Das Madchen (Death And The Maiden) was performed by Sarasvati with pianist Chin Kim Hung. The opening chords played on the piano rather than the sung melody served as the subject for the composer's famous string quartet of the same title. Chin was sturdy in his delivery and Saravasti impressed with her lower registers which evoked true pathos.

The houselights dimmed and came on to reveal Foo conducting the full string ensemble of 33 members in an augmented version of Schubert's String Quartet No.14 In D Minor (D.810). Gustav Mahler had written his own version for string orchestra, which in turn was further adapted by Foo for this performance. Notably, double basses were given parts to add body and heft to the overall sound.

Barely 10 days ago, the celebrated Juilliard String Quartet had given a stunningly riveting account of the original work at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in a lunchtime concert. The NAFA version was to be no less committed despite the youth and inexperience of the players involved. The opening movement was taken with an urgency and tautness that held its seams like glue. The exposition repeat was included without sounding weary, and the subsequent development ratcheted the tension several notches.

The Andante second movement was a set of variations on the aforementioned lied, the spiritual heart of the work. The ensemble was sensitive to the change of dynamics with each variation, and there was a sublime moment when the melody sung by the cellos was accompanied by delicate flitting violin figurations. A passionate climax had been reached, but there was more to do in the 3rd movement's Scherzo and Trio, which was guided with alternating agitation and lilting grace.

Gaining in confidence, the finale's tarantella rhythm was led at a furious pace, but witness how the frenzy dissolved immediately with the second subject's broad and generous entrance. It was this ability to shift gears so skilfully and musically in rapid succession that spelt the success of this endeavour.

If the seemingly unwieldy 33 could come close to emulating a slick foursome, something has to been said about the level of guidance and instruction. More is to be expected from this worthwhile project.