Young guitarist on top of his game

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO's) President's Young Performers Concerts have been an annual showcase of local talent in concerto performances since the 1990s.

The series has spanned the tenures of four presidents since Mr Ong Teng Cheong, featuring the likes of pianists Shane Thio, Lim Yan and Abigail Sin, violinists Lee Huei Min and Chan Yoong Han, and even a saxophonist, Samuel Phua. Kevin Loh is the first guitarist to appear on this platform, although he has previously performed with the orchestra.

His concerto was no big surprise: Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez, surely the most performed and recorded guitar concerto of all time.

While not presenting new insights, he gave a confident and big-hearted account of this familiar favourite. But how many people actually know its fast outer movements?

There was the intimate feeling of chamber music as Loh worked well with the orchestra, which relied mostly on strings and woodwinds in its narrative. Whether strumming out chords or negotiating tricky passage work, he was on top of his game.

In the famous Adagio, he first accompanied Elaine Yeo's sensuous cor anglais solo and then ventured out on his own. His sonorous mastery of the guitar's lower registers was also a delight, sounding like some baritone majo (or Spanish gentleman) in love.

The finale that followed erupted with festive colour, helped by the brass, especially the trumpets.



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra

    Victoria Concert Hall

    Last Friday

Prolonged applause meant an encore, with Paraguayan guitarist-composer Agustin Barrios Mangore's Waltz In G Major (Op. 8 No. 4) being Loh's perfect icing on the cake.

To balance the familiarity of Rodrigo, the concert led by SSO associate conductor Joshua Tan included two less familiar works. Opening the evening was Mendelssohn's Die Schone Melusine Overture, programme music on the legend of a two-tailed mermaid falling in love. Intricate woodwind passages and weepy strings painted a watery realm for an ill-fated romance to blossom and eventually expire beneath the waves.

Max Reger's Variations And Fugue On A Theme Of Mozart, receiving its Singapore premiere, concluded the concert. The German composer, front-liner of the "back-to-Bach movement", was responsible for some impossibly turgid pot-boilers, but this was thankfully not one of those.

Based on the first movement theme from Mozart's Piano Sonata In A Major (K.331, the one with the Turkish Rondo), the variations were well-crafted but difficult to pull off.

One might regard this as an expanded version of Brahms' Haydn Variations, as there were more than a few similarities.

The theme itself was plainly stated, with excellent woodwinds to thank again, but the variations grew increasingly florid while maintaining a basic outline.

Kudos go to both conductor and orchestra for keeping the variations tautly strung, without allowing instrumental ornaments and details to complicate matters.

There were even stretches of Straussian opulence and beauty, all coming before the massive fugal finale and the theme's glorious re-entry.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2019, with the headline Young guitarist on top of his game. Subscribe