Irrepressible and unflinching playing



Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Tuesday

It was a peculiar sight to behold conductor Shui Lan on the podium conducting an ensemble that is not the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

However, it is totally natural for the music director of a national orchestra to be invited to conduct the orchestra of a national music conservatory.

This first-time marriage of roles turned out to be a total treat.

In Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante In E Flat Major (K. 364), the soloists were the conservatory's heads of string faculties, namely violinist Qian Zhou and violist Zhang Manchin. They joined their students in tutti sections as members of the orchestral body itself and when their turn came, their unison entry soared above the throng.

For much of the score, Qian's violin had the leading voice, which was answered by Zhang's viola.

However, this was a duet of equals, not a duel, and they melded as one harmonious whole. Fitting like hand-in-glove, the tandem lit up the work from the intricate first movement cadenza, through the melancholic Andante (one of Mozart's most heartrending melodies) to the ebullient Presto finale.

The orchestra under Shui's firm guiding hand provided unobtrusive support, the strings shining with timely interjections from pairs of oboes and French horns. This was ultimately chamber music and when far larger forces congregated for Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, the orchestra's full might became evident.

The opening's quiet subterranean rumbling from cellos and basses was very well handled, conjuring an atmosphere of ominous foreboding and dread. This was to escalate, with layer by layer of grief sewn into the seams, before the ultimate gnashing of teeth which took some time in coming.

Solo clarinet, flute and bassoon were excellent, and while the brass had shaky moments in its chorale, there was no denying the commitment.

The slashing Scherzo, a portrait of Stalin that could be revealed only after his death, was well characterised - all malevolence and spewing vitriol. The enigmatic Allegretto that followed, filled with cryptic clues and insider messages, was delivered with irony.

Shostakovich's own initials, the recurrent motif D-Eb-C-B and an obsessive French horn call (representing some secret lover and sounded 12 times to perfection) made this droll movement all the more personal.

The best was reserved for the finale, where solo instrumental prowess and communal forces played to their strengths. A sinuous quasi-Oriental oboe solo, later joined by flute and piccolo, underpinned the movement's wry humour and ambiguously victorious rally. Miss a cue or keep less than precise timing, the joke would be lost, thus the players responded magnificently to conductor Shui's energetic beat wielded at a blinding pace.

Did the music display an in-your-face triumph upon the demise of a much hated autocrat or was it merely celebrating a moment's respite before the next dictator takes over?

It was difficult to say, but the playing was irrepressible and unflinching to the very end, prompting a loud outburst of applause and cheers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2016, with the headline 'Irrepressible and unflinching playing'. Subscribe