Shining Stravinsky

The N.E.O. (New Epoch Orchestral) Ensemble is the newest orchestra here to unveil its talents in a country with many musical groups.

Formed by some of the best professional musicians and conducted by Seow Yibin, it debuted with an all-Stravinsky programme. The concert covered the Russian composer's neoclassical phase, which spanned the 1920s and 1930s when he lived in France.

Four works were performed, all using chamber-sized forces, a conscious paring down from his large and opulent ballet scores The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring. Such a diminution was obvious in Octet For Winds (1923) for flute, clarinet, two of each of bassoons, trombones and trumpets.

The clear delineation of its parts was well handled and the overall balance was generally excellent. The second movement's Theme And Variations saw an admirable ability to cope with the music's twists and turns, matched with pin-point playing.



    N.E.O. Ensemble

    Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Seow spoke briefly about the composer, but his impromptu spiel was poorly prepared. Referencing musicologist Richard Taruskin, "Wagner symphonies" (he did not write any significant ones) and "machine- like French music" (really?), it came across as incoherent. Thankfully, his conducting was much better defined, as were Natalie Ng's well-researched notes in the programme.

Pianist Lim Yan was soloist in a rare performance of the Concerto For Piano & Winds (1923-1924), a neo-Baroque creation in three movements that demanded utmost precision and concentration. A veteran at handling the thorniest of scores, his mastery of its irregular rhythms and syncopations made it enthralling.

The piano's metallic clangour ensured he was not submerged by a larger group of woodwinds and brass, and there were spots for subtlety and sensitivity, notably in the slow movement's aria-like lyricism. The busily raucous finale trundled on before its abrupt and emphatic close.

By the time the Symphonies For Wind Instruments (1920) concluded, the ensemble had warmed up. Flautist Cheryl Lim and clarinettist Desmond Chow had significant parts and they were nigh inseparable. The title made use of the Greek meaning of symphony, which was "to sound together", rather than the compositional form and that was what the group delivered.

The final work, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1937), a homage by Stravinsky to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, saw the strings outnumber the winds. Textures were lighter and the ensemble adjusted its sound. The outer movements were thick with counterpoint, bookending a slow movement that was a graceful gavotte-like dance with typically Stravinskian harmonic quirks. The reading shone with responsive playing and vivacity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Shining Stravinsky'. Print Edition | Subscribe