Concert review: Late local composer Leong Yoon Pin's symphony brought to life

The question of identity is one which plagues our local composers and which the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra attempted to address in its latest concert, Tribute, held at the School of the Arts Concert Hall on Sunday.

Nationalistic composers have been hailed as heroes, from the Russians to the Americans both enjoying cult-like followings at home. Edvard Grieg (Norway), Jean Sibelius (Finland), and Leong Yoon Pin (Singapore) share a common trait in composing at a time where nationalism was conspicuously missing from their countries.

The Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Grieg, being one of the most well-known works in classical music, can sound hackneyed in lesser hands. But conductor Adrian Tan somehow contrived to coax some tender and radiant playing from the amateur ensemble. Although the balance between different sections could have been better managed, the opening solos by flautist Mohamad Rasull and oboist Makiko Kawamata allowed the Morning Mood to blossom into being.

While the orchestra can never be accused of lacking in enthusiasm, without restraint it can be a hindrance as witnessed in the Hall Of The Mountain King, where the male voices of the Joy Chorale were completely drowned out by some over-exuberant percussion- and trombone-playing.

Many have come to associate the tuba as an instrument that mainly plays the bass-line that nobody pays attention to. If they had heard Hidehiro Fujita, principal tuba of the SSO, tackling the solo part of Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto, they would be gobsmacked.

The warm velvety tone he produced from his instrument projected magnificently in the concert hall, and the tricky running passages in the lower registers were always precise. Some rushed playing by the orchestra in the finale was probably a result of a tempo just too fast for them, but the effortless display by Fujita in the high registers was an absolute treat. Virtuosity is rarely used to describe tuba-playing, but it is more than apt to label Fujita a virtuoso tubist.

Credit is due Khor Ai Ming, who prepared the 60-odd strong Joy Chorale, which featured prominently in the second half of the concert.

Sibelius' rousingly patriotic Finlandia has been described as the second national anthem of Finland, and was vibrantly performed by both orchestra and chorus. The much-maligned horn section has often come under some heavy criticism from this reviewer, but on this night they were the rock-like foundation supporting the rest of the orchestra.

The Joy Chorale, in particular, displayed some lung-bursting dynamics at the higher registers that made its hesitant entrance forgivable, although it was perpetually behind the orchestra with some tardy diction.

It is a pity that the music of the late Leong Yoon Pin, save for a few of his choral works, remains largely unperformed in Singapore. The night's performance of his Symphony No. 2, first and last performed in 1979, comes a day short of the fourth anniversary of his death.

The unassuming Leong would have been proud of the delivery by the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra, which enlivened the many facets of Leong's incorporation of our ethnic elements. Without utilising cliched quotations, the work served to underline his mastery of polyphony and usage of the voice.

The third and fourth movement, featuring the chorus singing verses from Li Bai's poems, had an underlying sincerity that permeated the deceptively plain orchestration which included the usage of Chinese drums and hand gong.

There was a sense of unease and lament throughout the work, perhaps mirroring the uncertainty and chaos during Singapore's early days, not unlike the later symphonies of Shostakovich or Prokofiev.