Concert review: Young conductor Wong Kah Chun debuts well at SSO, violinist Sarah Chang is born performer

There are endless debates about the role and function of an orchestral conductor: is he a collaborator, or is he a soloist? Or does he merely serve the purpose of the orchestra beginning and ending together? After all, one of the world's leading ensembles, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, regularly performs without a leader on the podium.

Young conductor Wong Kah Chun joins a growing list of Singaporeans making their mark on the international circuit with the baton, and made his debut yesterday at the Esplanade Concert Hall with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra having already directed the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Conducting the entire first half of the gala, Sarah Chang Live, from memory, he cut a confident figure in front of musicians with decades of experience on him. Some might dismiss it as showmanship, but Wong's deep understanding of the score was impressively evident in his intelligent crafting of every nook and crevice, and perhaps it was a necessary evil for young conductors to win over the players at his disposal.

Richard Wagner's Overture to his opera Tannhäuser was one of his most popular concert pieces, and it encapsulates his ingenuity in weaving dramatic commentary into complex and dense orchestration. Wong's steady and stoic reading imbued a sense of the grandiose to the excellent brass section, although one wondered if a little less micro-conducting would have resulted in a less rigid pulse in the shattering climax.

Franz Liszt's two symphonic poems, Orpheus and Les Préludes, were more suited for Wong's control and attentive mind with the layers of harmonic texture and sweeping gestures receiving their due spotlight. Indeed, in the former, a work written as a prelude to Gluck's Orpheo ed Euridice, some of the most surreal moments came when Wong allowed the orchestra some freedom to express itself.

There is no doubting that Wong has the makings for an excellent career, and with maturity and experience will come the necessary trust in the performers sharing the stage with him.

While less popular than the over-played Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Antonin Dvorak's work of the same genre arguably epitomises romanticism and nationalism more. With music director Lan Shui playing the part of the most sympathetic partner, violinist Sarah Chang delighted in the Bohemian song and dance, and showed she has lost none of the fire and prodigious technique with her impeccably pitched octaves.

The spirited Furiant and Dumka rhythms of the third movement were particularly invigorating, even if it threatened to derail at times with the soloist leaving the woodwinds trailing behind.

While her last visit to our shores resulted in disappointment, last night showed the many facets of Chang's playing. Capable of producing the most effortless cantabile lines from her violin at her best, she is equally prone to subjecting her instrument to bouts of brute and reducing it to a mere hacking tool.

It is undeniable, however, that her natural allure on the stage made her a born performer.