Concerts by the Singapore National Youth Orchestra used to be low-profile and minimally-publicised affairs until the involvement and sponsorship of Lanxess, the German chemical company. This partnership has resulted in several internationally renowned soloists performing with the orchestra, including Italian flautist Andrea Griminelli and Canadian violinist Lara St John.
The latest concert of all-French repertoire, held at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday. saw the Singapore debut of British cellist Natalie Clein, winner of the 1994 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition.
Anyone who has heard her stunning CD recording of Camille Saint-Saens's two cello concertos will attest that she is even more impressive in live performance. Cutting a svelte figure in a green floral gown, her glamourous appearance was almost a distraction until she actually sat down and performed.
In Saint-Saens's First Cello Concerto In A Minor, the tone she coaxed from her 1777 "Simpson" Guadagnini was rich and full-bodied, immediately putting her mark on the single-movement work performed without breaks. The virtuosic and fast hairpin turns encountered at the beginning and close of the concerto were met with lightning reflexes, requisite of this showpiece, a testament to her finely-honed technique. Even in the quieter bits, her playing was always transcendent and unfailingly beautiful.
Serving as a substantial encore was Faure's Elegie, a concert favourite which far from being a funereal dirge, was another opportunity for Clein and her cello to demonstrate long-breathed lyrical qualities. In both concertante works, the national youth orchestra led by Singapore Symphony Orchestra associate conductor Jason Lai was sensitive and attentive to the fine shifts in dynamics, keeping up with the constant activity in the concerto and allowing the soloist to sing unabated.
On its own, the young orchestra distinguished itself, opening the concert with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, an excellent showpiece that highlighted fine solo playing from the woodwinds, particularly Simon Lee's cor anglais, and ensemble strings which raced to a terrific crescendo before closing on a rousing high.
In the second half, the 12 short movements from Bizet's evergreen opera Carmen, neatly packaged in two orchestral suites, proved a popular choice. The opening Prelude was serious, intoning the cruel hand of Fate. There was a rustle of recognition in the audience at the Toreador's March and sultry Habanera. The absence of voices was never an issue, because the solo and ensemble playing was always close to excellent.
The soothing Intermezzo, which starred flute, clarinet and harp, provided lingering moments to cherish, so beautiful was the playing. Kudos also to the pair of trumpeters who confidently blazed their way in Escamillo's Aria and the Military March. Conductor Lai finally led his charges into the wild, vertiginous gypsy world of the Bohemian Dance, which began steadily but got increasingly frenzied all the way to its raucous conclusion. A shout of "Ole!" would have been the natural response to such playing of immediacy and high spirits.
Once again, the Singapore National Youth Orchestra proved its mettle in the heat of concert, and that can only bode well for the growing orchestral scene here.