Concert review: Nafa ensemble reflects the future of string playing

Nafa Project Strings is a string ensemble formed in 2013 by students of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, one that fosters excellence in string playing, preparing its members in future to play in orchestras and chamber outfits like re:mix. This hour-long concert at the Lee Foundation Theatre on Thursday was a showcase of English music, from the baroque to the 20th century.

Henry Purcell's Chacony In G Minor gave 14 players a chance to play on baroque bows in historically informed performance practice. Using little vibrato, the musicians created a clean and lean sound in this set of short variations over a syncopated ground bass. Initially appearing overawed, the ensemble soon warmed up and the result was a taut and well-disciplined account of this baroque favourite.

A larger ensemble soon gathered under the baton of conductor Lim Yau for a rare performance of Malcolm Arnold's Concerto For Two Violins Op.77. Arnold was well known for his accessible and audience-friendly music which included several film scores. The apparent spikiness in idiom with cellos issuing a gauntlet in a brusque theme at the outset was a ploy, as the music soon gained in lyricism.

Helming the solos were husband-and-wife duo violinists Itzhak Rashkovsky and Ani Schnarch, professors from London's Royal College of Music, who skilfully negotiated the thorny intertwined parts and tricky counterpoint. While the first movement was urgently paced, the slow movement provided bittersweet moments to reflect, backed by the warmth of accompanying strings.

The brief but busy finale saw the soloists phased a bar apart playing an unusually fast canon. There was no room for error in this perpetual motion which saw both ensemble and soloists on high alert, closing with split-second precision and aplomb.

The final work was a classic of the string repertoire, Edward Elgar's Introduction And Allegro. Here the ensemble was joined by a quartet, formed by Nafa faculty members, violinists Kwok Hai Won and Matthias Oestringer, violist Janice Tsai and cellist Lin Juan. This arrangement is an early 20th century relook at the baroque concerto grosso, with a small group of soloists backed by a larger body of players.

Despite the relatively dry acoustics of the hall, the strings coped well and made their mark with incisive, accurate and tautly-controlled playing. There was no hint of ponderousness in the slow and deliberate introduction, which gathered pace into a typically Elgarian swagger. The soloists were cohesive, standing out in sonority yet blending in seamlessly when it mattered.

The intricacies of the fugal finale proved no stumbling block as the ensemble flew on mercurial wings to its grand conclusion. If one were to marvel at the level of string playing in local groups in the present and near future, the secret lies in string projects such as these.

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