Enchanting musical menagerie



Ike See (violin/leader)

Victoria Concert Hall


What made this concert A Very Singaporean Celebration was the first item. Specially commissioned by re:Sound for the Singapore bicentenary from Singaporean pianist-turned-composer, Jonathan Shin, his short orchestral suite was aptly titled 1819.

Each of its six tiny movements told a different story from Singapore's past. But while you needed to read the programme booklet (beautifully illustrated by pupils of New Town Primary School) to know what those stories were, Shin cleverly avoided cliches and produced attractive music on its own terms.

It was most refreshing to hear a new work which neither tried to impress with the complexity of its writing nor sounded like some hotchpotch assemblage of other composers' ideas. Instead, his music was supremely confident and comfortable in its own skin. That, perhaps, is what made it truly Singaporean.

Possibly the French composer Camille Saint-Saens visited Singapore during his travels to Indo-China in the 1880s, but beyond that, there was no obvious Singaporean connection for his Carnival Of The Animals - unless there was some subliminal message here about the menagerie which is modern Singapore. Maybe it was just a celebration of one of Singapore's more popular tourist attractions.

Nevertheless, the players of re:Sound performed this self-styled zoological fantasy with great charm, wit and elegance. The famous solos for xylophone (fossils) and cello (swan) were beautifully performed, but the star was Edmund Song, depicting the elephant, who got more richness and variety from his double bass than one would have thought possible.

Keeping it all flowing along effortlessly, despite the awkward interpolation of pre-recorded verses by American poet Ogden Nash, was the piano duo of Koh Jia Hwei and Lim Yan, who were always sensitive to their role as keepers to the animals in this musical zoo.

Two first symphonies, written long before the events of 1819, formed the concert's second half. The first of these would probably have long since passed into obscurity were it not for the fact that it was written by Mozart when he was just eight. Re:Sound honoured this infantile writing with a careful and finely polished performance, neatly directed from his violin by Ike See.

With the opening of the Beethoven symphony, the wisdom of having such a large orchestra perform without conductor seemed questionable. It was fuzzy around the edges and much of the inner detail was overlooked. But with See's enchanting approach to the second movement, one saw the real benefits of this insider-led approach.

The final two movements bustled by in a celebration of wit and good humour which was not so much Singaporean as universal.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline Enchanting musical menagerie. Subscribe