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Concert review: Singapore National Youth Orchestra proves mettle with blockbuster romantic works

Dvorak Cello Concerto and Saint-Saens Organ Symphony

Singapore National Youth Orchestra – Peter Stark (principal guest conductor), Qin Li-Wei (cello), Koh Jia Hwei (organ)
Esplanade Concert Hall
Dec 6, 7.30pm

This has been an exciting year in terms of programming for the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO). This concert with two blockbuster romantic works followed its excellent outing with the Singapore Ballet in July.

The SNYO’s principal guest conductor was back with the orchestra for the fifth time, and the young musicians were privileged to have the chance to perform Czech romantic-era nationalist composer Antonin Dvorak’s most celebrated concerto, his cello concerto, with Qin Li-Wei, arguably Singapore’s most popular cello soloist.

As if the Dvorak Cello Concerto was not enough, the second half of the programme would pair the orchestra with the Esplanade Concert Hall’s magnificent Klais organ, under the very able hands (and feet) of organist Koh Jia Hwei.

Just one of these pieces in concert would make a great headliner. Both in one concert was almost too good to be true, for any lover of symphonic music.

The affable Qin, with his effortless cello playing, warm and giving sound, and chamber music-like connection to fellow musicians was as close to the perfect soloist for young musicians to work with in concert.

With or without a conductor, audiences had witnessed him brush aside technical challenges to deliver compelling, seductive performances.

The Dvorak concerto was certainly one of the trickier ones for an orchestra, and quite a stretch for a youth orchestra. It called for the orchestra to excel in Bohemian romanticism, but, at the same time, have the agility of a chamber group, in the exchanges between the cello soloist and various soloists in the orchestra.

From the opening section, there was rhythmic tension, which Stark was not able to shake off. Even with the solo cello’s steady entry, the pulse was not established and the first movement was marked by accompaniment that slipped in and out of tandem with the soloist.

Things settled in the following slow movement. The final movement had a solid opening, confident solos from the concertmaster Keith Ong, and remained steady to the finale.

The Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony, so-called because of substantial parts for the concert hall organ in the work, sounded as if it was performed by a different orchestra.

This was very possibly the case, as the wind parts in the Dvorak concerto and Saint-Saens are so demanding that professional orchestras would often alternate players between the pieces. Whatever the case, the SNYO sounded fully grounded, warmer and much more balanced in the symphony.

Saint-Saens’ numerous solos and sectional solos for winds were very well performed, with excellent solos by the orchestra’s solo flute, oboe, horn and cor anglais.

The strings of the SNYO had always received mention for their strength and depth, but this evening, the woodwinds and brass – including an outstanding tuba – deserved the credit too.

The SNYO strings sounded noticeably warmer and fuller than they did in the cello concerto. There was some virtuoso orchestral writing in the beginning of the second movement – parts which trip up even veteran orchestras. The strings did well, albeit with a tendency to rush and clip their notes.

On the other hand, the woodwinds played their parts to near-perfection. To top it off, the symphony ended with a triumphant flourish by timpanist Isaac Ng.



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