Romantic fare greeted with wild applause

REVIEW / CONCERT

QIN LI-WEI & YANG YANG: BARBER & RACHMANINOFF

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday

There was a time, during the middle of the last century, when it was unfashionable, even retrogressive, to be a composer with Romantic inclinations. But tonality and the ability to write a good tune are now back in vogue, which explains why Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff are among the most regularly performed of 20th-century composers today.

Late Romanticism ruled the Conservatory Orchestra's latest concert, conducted by young prize-winning Chinese conductor Yang Yang.

Barber's Cello Concerto was given a rare performance by Chinese-Australian cellist Qin LiWei, who faced up to its host of technical and musical challenges.

The orchestra did its part by delivering its introduction well. Filled with tricky woodwind solos - essentially the opening movement's motifs and themes - these heralded Qin's imposing entry.

His cello tone was incisive and searing, yet filled with tenderness that allowed lyrical passages to shine through. Thorny and rhythmically exacting at the same time, the seemingly opposing qualities were reeled off with stunning aplomb, culminating in a virtuosic cadenza.

It was a mistake to let latecomers enter during the short pause between the first two movements. The tardily nonchalant and noisy way they looked for their seats spoiled the slow movement's idyll between cello and solo oboe.

Inappropriate applause after the movement also jarred, far more than the occasional flat brass entries that came before.

But the musical heroics - with Qin leading the charge - in the concerto's conclusion were greeted with wild applause.

He obliged with two exquisite solo encores - Giovanni Sollima's Alone and Peteris Vasks' Pianissimo from Book, the latter requiring several rapt moments of wordless vocalising in harmony with the cello.

The second half belonged to Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. This was the second time the Conservatory Orchestra had programmed it. The previous occasion was in 2009, conducted by American pianistconductor Leon Fleisher in Kent Ridge.

Conductor Yang's charges were arguably a finer cohort of musicians and the manner in which they began the 55-minute work was exemplary.

The expansive tempo adopted was in no risk of falling apart. When it reached the main Allegro section, there was a sense of joyous release. But the impact of the development would have been greater if it were laced with more impetuosity and wildness.

The Scherzo was well-marshalled despite the high speeds involved and the Tchaikovskyan outburst at its centre could not have been better done.

The Adagio could be described only with superlatives. Taking pride of place was clarinettist Jang Zion for his characterful solo, borne of a ripe, creamy tone that will remain long in the memory.

The trance-like sequence of solos incanting the movement's main theme, performed with consummate skill, underlined the music's Russianness.

The rapturous finale, whipped into an ecstatic ride with surging runs, was also a joy. That visceral thrill elicited a rabid ovation, which was the least this evening's unabashedly Romantic fare deserved.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Romantic fare greeted with wild applause'. Print Edition | Subscribe