Concert review: NAFA does Leong Yoon Pin's legacy proud

After Leong Yoon Pin, the doyen of Singapore composers, died in 2011, his scores, recordings, correspondence and assorted memorabilia were bestowed to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) for research and archival purposes. A concert of his chamber music and artsongs by the NAFA School of Music, which he helped found in 1984, was held last October, the compact disc recording of which was launched on Thursday evening at the Victoria Concert Hall.

A short film was aired, with reminiscences by his former students and NAFA staff members, detailing his illustrious career as music educator, conductor and composer. Significantly, he was the only Singaporean to have studied with the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the 1960s and was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1982.

Sketches (1984), three works for oboe and piano based on his travels to New Zealand, was performed by Joost Flach and Shane Thio, the same performers who premiered the work in 1985 in a New Music Forum concert at the very same venue.

The work displayed his typically gritty style that juxtaposed dissonances with short snatches of melody, which despite the movements' titles was more absolute music rather than programme music. Thio revealed that the performers had hitherto been unaware of what each movement had described until the second performance in 2014, when the work was revisited.

Beach contrasted resonant piano chords with the oboe's more chromatic exposition. The central movement Mineral Spring featured microtonal playing on the oboe, sliding between pitches, while Goats On A Slope was a lively and animated dance with a somewhat Oriental flavour.

A more lyrical side of Leong was heard in the artsong Firefly (1968), performed with feeling and flair by mezzo-soprano Jessica Chen and pianist Nicholas Loh. Sung in Chinese, which was Leong's mother tongue, this represented his significant contribution to the Chinese vocal and choral repertoire, which is all too rarely heard by audiences of Western classical music here.

The rest of the concert featured winners of the NAFA Music Essentials concerto competition. Pianist Lin Wan polished off two virtuoso etudes by Liszt and Rachmaninov with requisite bravura, while Alexander Oon gave a rare performance of Franz Strauss' Fantasie For French Horn (with pianist Loh), showcasing an excellent burnished tone in the slow bits and much agility when demanded.

Most stunning was Wei Yayi's yangqin solo in Xu Changjun's Phoenix Concerto, with its frenetic pace and rhythms, which found an equal match in pianist Hsieh I-Chieh's solid accompaniment. The breathless sweep as the mythical bird rose from its ashes was both a visual and aural spectacle to behold. An altogether sedate avian species was displayed by cellist Li Jingli in Saint-Saens' The Swan (with pianist Lin), which glided with a smooth and silky cantabile to close the concert on a sublime note.

The Leong Yoon Pin CD will soon be made available for retail. In the meantime, there is little doubt that his younger colleagues at NAFA have done his legacy proud.