Violas in full bloom

For music lovers and enthusiastic musicians of all abilities, one of the great bonuses of proximity to an established music conservatory is the range of faculty concerts to indulge in.

This evening, violist Nobuko Imai, Ong Teng Cheong visiting professor in music at the YST Conservatory of Music and students of the viola studio rewarded a full house with a real treat, with music for viola ensemble to one of the greatest sonatas ever written for the viola and piano.

In the first half, Imai, a world-renowned chamber musician and pedagogue, joined students from the Conservatory in three works for viola ensemble, beginning with Sakura for eight violas by contemporary Japanese composer Akira Nishimura. This was followed by two works for four violas - York Bowen's Fantasia and Garth Knox's Marin Marais Variations, based on the famous Spanish La Folia melody that has been used by Corelli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and countless other composers over the ages.

The depth of ability among the current cohort of the Conservatory's viola majors was clear as they captured the fleeting transience of cherry blossoms in season, ending in subtle strains of the folk song Sakura. In Bowen's Fantasia, Ho Qian Hui, who played second viola, was outstanding in the tone production and phrasing, with the quartet of violas fully capturing the English-ness of Bowen's writing.

Knox's quirky set of La Folia variations explores the gamut of string technique, from the use of the wooden part of the bow to grating microtonal dissonance. There was much viola technique on show, but the all-important pulse of the much-loved theme eluded this foursome.

In an interview with the Strad Magazine, Imai said that the viola should sound like a human voice. The 16 songs of Schumann's Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love), Op. 48, transcribed for viola and piano by violist Martin Stegner, were a perfect medium to demonstrate this.



    Nobuko Imai (viola), Albert Tiu (piano), students of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music

    YST Conservatory of Music

    Concert Hall

    Last Saturday

Imai has a glorious lower register tone and a remarkable range of vibrato. Even without Heinrich Heine's lyrics, her articulation and immaculate phrasing created a performance uncannily like that of the greatest lieder singers. Songs 1 (In Beautiful May), 6 (In The Rhine, In The Sacred Stream) and 10 (When I Hear That Song Which My Love Once Sang) were most heart-rending.

The final work in the programme was Brahm's Viola Sonata No. 2. Having spent all evening on her feet leading the students and delivering a passionate reading of Dichterliebe, Imai remarkably still had the energy and poise to perform a beautifully nuanced sonata. YST faculty member Albert Tiu, who provided strong support on the Schumann songs, was even more inspired in the Brahms sonata. Their heartfelt performance of the second movement, Allegro Appassionato, was most satisfying - a high point of the evening.

In musical circles, violas are often underappreciated. This evening, however, Imai and the students of the YST Conservatory elevated their instrument, showing the audience the beauty and virtuosity that the "middle voice" among string instruments is capable of.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2019, with the headline 'Violas in full bloom'. Print Edition | Subscribe