Concert review: Young saxophonist star shines bright

The annual President's Young Performers Concert returned to the recently re-opened Victoria Concert Hall this year, having been held at the Esplanade Concert Hall since 2004.

Now in its 14th year running, the concert fulfils the ambition of every young musician in Singapore - to share the stage with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Led by associate conductor Jason Lai, the orchestra opened proceedings confidently in the world premiere of Bernard Tan's Aspirations Overture, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Singapore Institute of Management.

Full of oriental influences, the overture was typical Tan - genuinely accessible and unpretentious. Themes were simply presented and there was to be no complex atonal metamorphosis.

It was immediately apparent though, that the biggest obstacle the musicians faced this evening was to achieve a balance of timbre in their refurbished old home. While the woodwinds and brass were pristinely clear, especially in the passages where the four flautists tackled frenetic running notes in unison, the upper strings were too bright, and the basses sounded diffused.

This was to prove to be the same in Barber's Adagio For Strings. Conductor Lai's earnest approach shed the work of its usual hyper-romanticism and instead opted for a more sincere, heart-rendering delivery. Although entries were at times tentative, it was impossible not to be swept away by the purity of the harmonic texture the orchestra conjured.

Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun is perhaps one of the most dynamic works representative of the Impressionistic era being both visually stimulating and overwhelming in dramatic impact. Lai evoked the most contrasting moods from the work, alternating between sensuous eroticism and nostalgia, and obliged flautist Evgueni Brokmiller's indulgent solos that sounded totally improvisatory.

The brass section was particularly impressive in Aaron Copland's Appalachian Springs, being both powerful and precise in execution.

Not to be outdone, the woodwinds responded with some playful and witty dialogue that brought out the smiles. However, the shoebox acoustics of the hall worked against the ensemble at times. The dramatic effects of rests and accents were lost in lush reverberance and pianissimo sections sounded too thin.

The star of the evening was 16-year-old saxophonist Samuel Phua, currently a student at the School of the Arts and the first wind player featured in this annual concert. Exuding confidence from the moment he stepped onstage, his calm persona served him well in Jacques Ibert's Concertino da Camera and John Williams' Escapades from the movie Catch Me If You Can (2002).

It wasn't just his immaculate control of his instrument that struck one most. The way he was completely involved in the music-making, leading and shaping phrases, prompted a response from the orchestra that is missing in performances far too often, and it was a pleasure seeing both soloist and orchestra communicating with each other fervently.

His lush tone was of the highest quality and he handled the trickier passages faultlessly and with ease.

Confidence is a two-edged sword. Too much or too little of it can be detrimental, but in this case, Phua would be better served to ignore his age and have complete confidence in his abilities. As the saying goes, if you're good enough, you're old enough, and he is destined for great things.

Book It


Where: Victoria Concert Hall

When: July 25, 7.30pm

Tickets: $20 - $72 from Sistic (tel: 6348-5555,