Concert Review: Piquant orchestral sounds from The Philharmonic Orchestra

While most orchestras in Singapore, professional or otherwise, are intent on pursuing performances of blockbuster repertoire works, The Philharmonic Orchestra has bucked the trend.

Its latest concert, conducted by its music director Lim Yau, was a well thought-out and imaginative programme of contemporary Asian works, including two by Singaporean composers.

Unsurprisingly, the concert hall at the School of the Arts was far from filled on June 14, but the audience were treated to some of the most piquant orchestral sounds thought possible. Arguably the most familiar work was the late Leong Yoon Pin's Dayong Sampan Overture (1980). Despite hearing it for the umpteenth time, there is much that sounds fresh in a spirited performance as this.

Cast in the form of a short symphonic poem, Leong introduces much original material before the well-loved Malay melody is first heard on the oboe played by Veda Lin Wei. It is a magical and nostalgic moment, and the piece is developed in the manner American composers Ives or Copland might have done, before the four-note motif appears for the last time for a rousing close. If the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had to choose a local work for the BBC Proms to represent the nation, this would be it.

The other Singaporean composer was Phoon Yew Tien, whose Wang Jiang Nan (2003) featured young yangqin virtuoso Derek Koh in the solo part. In its four short movements, the Chinese dulcimer struck by sticks is treated both as an ensemble as well as a solo instrument. While no Chinese melodies were overtly quoted, the spirit of Jiangnan shizhu (ensemble playing south of the Yangtze River) was re-lived by the bold use of instrumental colour, clashing dissonances and the yangqin's virtuosic showing.

Another young Singaporean soloist was flautist Jasper Goh, who was ushered on stage in a wheelchair with a plaster cast wrapped around his right foot. Like the legendary Itzhak Perlman, he performed seated in Toru Takemitsu's hauntingly beautiful I Hear The Water Dreaming (1987).

The gentle and strangely soothing piece develops from the rarefied sound world of French masters Debussy and Messiaen, but takes on an Oriental slant without actually sounding Japanese. Those enraptured by the sinuous and tonally ambiguous flute solo in Debussy's Syrinx or Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Fawn would find much to enjoy here.

As if mirroring the Phoon work was Chinese composer Zhu Jian'er's A Wonder Of Naxi (1984), a picturesque suite in four short movements that closed the concert.

It is to Zhu's credit that he did not plagiarise known Western models but instead strove to create his own sound effects.

Including the alto saxophone played by Xia Wei in the opening movement Droplets In A Brass Basin was a nice touch, before crafting a lovely duet for Lin Juan's cello and Chan Yoong Han's violin in the third movement, Nocturnal Conversation Of Mother And Daughter.

There were string and woodwind trills galore in the 2nd movement, Bees Crossing The River, and an excitable chase pitting both timpani and Chinese drums in the finale Red Deer Hunting.

So exciting it was that the baton flew out of conductor Lim's hand and landed somewhere among the violists. As concerts go, it was a welcome departure from the norm and an evening to cherish.