Concert review: Luscious sound from young chamber ensemble

Making its debut at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Monday evening was Project Strings, the chamber ensemble of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Although it was the brainchild of its director, violinist-conductor Foo Say Ming, the entire concert was a student-led initiative which gave the students a rare opportunity to organise a full-scale concert on their own.

Opening the concert was a world premierè of cultural-medallion recipient Kam Kee Yong's Malaysian Suite for String Orchestra, reworked in 2010 from an award-winning string quartet score composed in 1963. Kam is not only a composer and violinist, but also a renowned painter; this is evident in his compositions, which when brought to life by Project Strings, conjured up colourful scenes of life in a Malay village. The three-movement suite was laden with Middle Eastern-inspired melodies, the jubilant outer movements sandwiching a serenade, which instead of a tranquil night scene, was more reminiscent of an amorous public declaration of love.

It seemed like a family business for a moment when Kam's daughter, Kam Ning, took to the stage to perform the first Violin Concerto in D Minor by Mendelssohn, predecessor of the more famous one in E minor and rediscovered only in the last century by her mentor Yehudi Menuhin. Directing the ensemble and playing from memory, the younger Kam played with impeccable clarity and a focused sound, characterised by wit and humour.

Brimming with infectious energy which also reflected in the ensemble's playing, they offered a fresh and highly imaginative perspective to the composition which would otherwise have looked like an étude on paper. The almost-full recital studio clapped, cheered and wolf-whistled: they wanted more - and were rewarded with her signature encore piece, her own jazzy arrangement of John Newton's Amazing Grace, complete with foot-stomping, multiple stops (playing more than two notes at once), and every other trick in the book of virtuoso violin playing.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, which the concert is named after. Instead of the usual frenzied, volatile and powerfully driven readings which most ensembles offer, Foo opted for more laid-back tempos, choosing instead to bring out the timbres and layers of the different instruments and yielded a full-bodied tone from the ensemble.

The textures were distinct and this worked for the first movement, but perhaps due to the sheer size of the ensemble, the later movements sounded a little wearying and at times draggy. Although evidently tired, the ensemble pressed on with gusto towards the joyful fugue finale. With such a luscious sound, one hopes that these young musicians would return soon: perhaps next time with Tchaikovsky's Serenade?

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