Concert review: Grand show from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra

A large audience attended the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra’s first concert at the newly renovated Victoria Concert Hall on Friday evening. Although some concerns had been raised about fine-tuning the auditorium’s acoustics, these were answered in no small way by the quality of the performances by the young orchestra.

Overhead reflecting panels were removed for this concert, allowing the sound to rise above the stage, resulting in the projection to the stalls being rather less in-your-face. The first long- held note of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was stunning, and the ensuing chords a promise of a grand show ahead.

Esteemed Hungarian guest conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy then upped the ante, guiding his charges through a performance that truly befitted the heroism of its subject, the 16th centuryDutch nobleman who defied Spanish overlords and paid with his life. With each punched out phrase and stentorian gesture, held together with utmost cohesiveness, the players learnt much about vehemence and resistance.

Even when the orchestra was not under the spotlight, it was distinguished by supporting pianist Wang Qiying in Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. This was a work from the Russian’s teenaged years, but substantially revised in 1917 to include much complicated and occasionally dissonant writing of his later period. Wang, winner of the Conservatory’s concerto competition, rose up to all the work’s thorny challenges with aplomb.

Her beguiling strength in big octaves, chordal passages and razor-sharp reflexes in the faster outer movements were equal to the singing of bittersweet and flowing melody, qualities that made Rachmaninov so beloved among listeners. In short, this was a reading that captured the fin de siècle spirit of Romanticism’s dying embers.

Leaving the best for the last, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, also known as the Eroica, showed how an orchestra of students can be galvanised into heroics they did not know they possessed a week before. From the first note to the last, this was a performance conceived with mission and conviction, revealing a tautness that belied its inordinate length.

The opening was urgently driven but did not feel hurried, while the slow movement’s funeral march was a stepwise build-up from quiet brooding to a grandstanding procession. The journey was a breathtaking one, with no let-up in the Scherzo where a trio of French horns stole the show with its carousing choruses.

This led without a breather into the finale’s variations on a quirky dance theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures Of Prometheus. Here is the usually gruff German at his gayest, with humour and frolicking shining through.

The hectic tempos of before had now transformed into the gush of ecstasy. Long and loud cheers greeted its conclusion, for the young ensemble had given a concert that even professional orchestras will be proud of.