Music keeps Choo Hoey young


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

It was appropriate that the first Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert held after the 50th National Day be conducted by its founding music director Choo Hoey, who led the orchestra from 1979 to 1996.

Now in his early 80s, Choo has lost some sprightliness in his step.

But on the podium, he seemed revitalised. The spark of leading his charges and long-time friends in music-making returned for two whole hours.

The well-attended one-night- only concert opened unusually with Darius Milhaud's ballet La Creation Du Monde (The Creation Of The World).

Scored for just 17 players, this was modern chamber music of the 1920s that embraced both the old worlds (it was classically conceived, even incorporating the fugue) and new (jazz and the blues).

The performance bristled with a fervid beat, with solos by Tang Xiao Ping (on saxophone), Ma Yue (clarinet) and Rachel Walker (oboe) standing out.

The balance of sound in the reverberant hall was, however, not favourable to the strings - the violins, cello and double bass were virtually shut out by the winds, brass, percussion and piano.

Thankfully, the soloist in the next piece, Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, was Taiwanese violinist Tseng Yu-Chien, winner of the 1st Singapore International Violin Competition in January and subsequently runner-up at the Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow.

Although he is not an overtly showy perfomer, his playing was brimming with confidence.

A bright clarion tone, with perfect intonation, lit up his entry in the opening movement and shone like a beacon in the second movement when the orchestral volume could have got out of hand.

The third movement's variations on the Scottish tune I'm Down For Lack Of Johnnie found the best balance of all, and how Tseng's violin truly sang.

The bellicose finale provided a stirring show of fireworks from all on stage and the audience cheered and clamoured for an encore.

Tseng obliged with further purity of tone in the first movement of Bach's Unaccompanied Second Sonata.

The second half was The Choo Hoey Show, in the familiar warhorse that is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

If the listener had expected broad tempos and stolid posturings in the manner of Klemperer or Celibidache, one was to be surprised.

Clocking in under 35 minutes, this was no slouch of a performance, nor was there the litheness and light textures that come with modern approaches.

Choo demanded a rich, full- bodied sound through its four movements and he got it.

The iconic first movement was brisk, tautly held together, but it never sounded hectic.

The strings were given ample space to breathe in the slow movement, which brought out the work's lyrical best.

The lightly traipsing third movement was given more nuances than one suspected, with virtuosic ensemble playing in its agitated middle section.

The expectant lead-up to the grand-standing finale was exciting, bettered only by the actual article itself.

The breathless close, brilliantly marshalled, brought out prolonged accolades for the revered maestro.

There seemed to be one common thought that ran through the house: Music makes one young again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Music keeps Choo Hoey young'. Print Edition | Subscribe