REVIEW / CONCERT
Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra - Apo Hsu (conductor), Shan Yew (violin)
Sota Concert Hall
For the past three decades, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) has played a key role in encouraging amateur musicians from all walks of life to rehearse tirelessly, working towards public concert performances.
Its annual "symphonic masterworks" was led by Taiwanese conductor Apo Hsu, who returned to the podium after a strong performance with the orchestra two years ago. In turn, the orchestra's regular concertmaster Shan Yew was the soloist in Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Violin Concerto.
The compact matinee programme began with Edward Elgar's Variations On An Original Theme, Op. 36, better known as the Enigma Variations. Even for accomplished professional orchestras, the work - quintessentially English, with myriad subtle and not-so-subtle turns - requires adroit direction and a responsive orchestra.
Each of the 14 variations is given the initials of one of Elgar's close associates and every one is highly distinctive, with its own character. Musicologists have argued endlessly over what Elgar meant by naming the main theme "Enigma".
Hsu, who conducted without baton, simply directed the Enigma theme without fuss, coaxing a well-balanced sound from the orchestra. Her tempos throughout the concert were spot-on - moderate and well-judged.
Guest concertmaster Lim Shue Chern provided solid leadership, despite having to lead with a string section that was a tad weaker than what was heard by this reviewer two years ago.
Hsu's conducting clearly showed she had thought out each variation in detail. More importantly, she was able to work through the trickiest passages and the technical challenges that came with any community orchestra.
She was able to extract the best from musicians with her flowing, unpretentious conducting. This was all the more creditable, given that the orchestra had reduced its use of professional guest players, opting to give as many places as possible to amateurs in the community.
The dynamics were well managed and BHSO's trumpets, trombones and percussion provided much excitement and bravura in Variation IV, XI and the Finale, without overpowering the rest of the orchestra.
Earlier in his career, Yew was one of the top violinists in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. His experience shone throughout the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, right from his polished, flowing lines in the opening movement. There was the odd off-note in the earlier part of the movement, but he steadied the ship and delivered a very impressive cadenza. It was smooth-sailing after that.
Yew's second movement was especially successful. Too often the soloist tries to woo the audience with a saccharine, sentimental reading, but he was able to bring out the lyricism of the movement while retaining a Russian-ness in his playing. He was well supported by the woodwinds of the BHSO, with notably excellent solos from principal clarinet Tim Raes.
The closing movement was not rushed, yet had plenty of spirit. The concerto ended strongly, with soloist and orchestra partnering each other well.