Singapore National Youth Orchestra: Review of Musical Masterpieces

It has been just over six months since management of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO) moved from the Ministry of Education to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). If this second post- transition concert is anything to go by, the signs are that the move is positive for the young musicians and the future of youth music- making in Singapore.

German conductor Jonas Alber directed an ambitious all-German programme, opening with Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave).

The smooth, finely balanced opening notes of the youth orchestra's strings and noticeably improved wind intonation were evident, signalling a new air of discipline and precision which remained throughout the performance.

The overture evokes imagery of the Hebrides islands and the tempestuous waters off the west coast of Scotland, which the young musicians handled with ease. Alber chose a broad, comfortable tempo and provided clear, detailed direction with special attention to control dynamics in all except the most agitated scenes.



    Singapore National Youth Orchestra Jonas Alber - conductor

    Mariam Adam - clarinet

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Tuesday

Technically, he drew the best from the young musicians, but one felt that he never captured the ruggedness and the power of the waters that Mendelssohn embedded in the music.

This concert is the sixth and final one in partnership with German speciality chemicals company Lanxess, which gives the orchestra members a chance to perform with leading musicians from around the world. This year the guest soloist was American-born clarinettist Mariam Adam, who performed Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, and partnered the orchestra's principal clarinet Benny Lim in a movement of Franz Krommer's Concerto For Two Clarinets.

The orchestra provided fine, taut accompaniment for both concertos, but the contrast between the pieces was striking. The Mozart concerto is a seminal work in the clarinet repertoire, with some of the composer's most charming and ebullient writing. Oddly, Adam took a highly sentimental approach and Alber's overly romantic reading did not help, resulting in a competent but unconvincing performance.

The Rondo from Krommer's concerto, on the other hand, was a blast. Adam's playing took on a new life and Lim was every bit her equal, playing with virtuosity and spirit, and the partnership was rock solid. Alber allowed the orchestra to revel in the playful rondo, and for the first time in the evening, it was obvious that this was an orchestra of spirited young players on stage.

After what was already a demanding first half, the orchestra performed Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the most lyrical and happiest of the composer's four symphonies, but still a demanding work for a youth orchestra.

True to form, the musicians were well prepared for the symphony. The exposed wind solos were well played, principal horn Mindy Chang was excellent in her solos, and the horn section impressed on the whole.

The strings of the orchestra have long been pillars of strength.

This evening the violins were consistently solid, and an under- strength cello section with just six cellists carried their melody admirably in the second movement. The seven-strong bass section was steady, but hardly allowed to play out.

Alber's conducting was clear and consistent, and his contribution to this high-calibre performance was clear. One just had the lingering feeling that the pursuit of technical excellence could have been enhanced by giving the talented young musicians more room to express themselves in performance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2015, with the headline 'Drawing out the best from young musicians'. Print Edition | Subscribe