Concert review: Rich display of the virtuosity of wind instruments

Wind instruments have often been unjustly labelled as the less glamorous members of the orchestral family, due to the tendency of the instrument to restrict the performer's movements. Unable to sway or make Lang-Langesque wild facial expressions, or flail their arms like violinists and cellists can, they give the impression of being un-virtuosic.

Monday's concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio by the Philharmonic Chamber Winds, presented by Singapore's premier wind ensemble The Philharmonic Winds, showed that under the most imaginative hands wind instruments are equally capable of creating the most intimate and intricate music.

A moment of silence was respectfully observed following a heart-felt tribute by narrator William Ledbetter for the passing of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Led by Joost Flach, former sub-principal oboist of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and current head of winds at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the ensemble's immaculate tone control was startling. Bassoonist Aw Yong Tian and oboist Tay Kai Tze's opening duet in Reinhard Van Hoorickx's reconstruction of the second movement from Schubert's Wind Octet was a masterclass in collaborative musicianship, and with Flach's gentle and understated guidance the clarinets and horns seamlessly joined in the conversation.

Hope soon gave way to the darkness of Johan Othman's He Too A Simulacrum, That Another Person Was Dreaming Him. Full of jarring dissonances as the opening section featured instruments seemingly playing random phrases that had no correlation to each other, the work sought to deconstruct, rebuild, and turn on its head the theme from the popular Malay folksong Suriram.

Flach commented that it takes an immense amount of concentration for the musicians to navigate the work, and it was an impressive display of mental focus by the ensemble in this conjectural music. Soon the work revealed itself with its mordant commentaries gradually fitting together in the end.

Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai was initially known for his choral works, but has evolved to be competent in just about any genre. His Four Taiwanese Aboriginal Songs, originally composed for the piano and later arranged for Wind Quintet, reflected his ingenuity in part writing and his ability to translate physical gestures into music.

The quintet, comprising of Andy Koh (flute) Tay (oboe) Liang Jiayi (clarinet) Marcus Ng (French horn) and Aw Yong Tian (bassoon) gave an admirable impression of the chants and dance of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. With the stylishly ornamented song in Harvest Time Of The Paiwan Tribe and jaunty rhythms in Dance Of The Paiwan Tribe and Dance Of The Beinan Tribe, one could almost feel deeply immersed in the processions.

William Ledbetter has taken the art of narration to a new level, and his latest work shows why he has become a much sought-after narrator and presenter. The impeccable timing he showed in Martin Butler's Dirty Beasts gave the work a vividness thought unachievable without visual image. Set to verses from a collection of Roald Dahl's poems of the same title, the work's grotesque and macabre inner-writing was delivered with panache by both Ledbetter and the ensemble, with pianist Mayumi Hamamoto shining in the Bartokian chords and ancents.

Percussionist Daniel Ho provided a rock steady mimicking of the military march in Janacek's March Of The Blue Birds, which featured some flashy tonguing technique from Ng and Yap Yoke Lim on the French horns.

Any doubts that these wind players could not deliver virtuosity when required were dispelled in Arthur Bird's Suite In D Major For Wind Instruments. The four-movement work, being deceptively straight-forward, contained some finger-twisting writing for the flute and clarinet, which proved no obstacle for Teo Shao Ming and Desmond Chow respectively.