CONCERT REVIEW: Orchestra of the Music Makers, Chan Tze Law play Holst, Ho Chee Kong and Stravinsky

Rite(s) of Spring

HOLST Oriental Suite – Beni Mora
CHEE KONG HO Passage – Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra (World Premiere)
STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring

Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM), Chan Tze Law.
Cello: Li-Wei Qin

2 June 2012, 7.30pm
Esplanade Concert Hall

reviewed by Soo Kian Hing 

The Orchestra of the Music Makers, affectionately known by its acronym OMM by fans, is a non-professional orchestra that has sprung up in the recent decade in the Singaporean ‘serious’ music scene. Together with a few other independent orchestras, the OMM provides music lovers with what the ‘state’ orchestra (ie. Singapore Symphony Orchestra or SSO) is perceived to be lacking in: innovative and daring programming within the boundaries of what is considered ‘classical music’, and which go towards satisfying the more adventurous palette of the younger generation of classical music players and music-goers alike. At the same time, quality is not compromised, a fact that is reflected in their choice of music director and conductor: Associate Professor Chan Tze Law, who is Associate Director of Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Under his baton, the OMM has performed and recorded Mahler’s Symphonies no. 1 and 2, both receiving rave reviews in the classical scene.

The programme for this concert may not seem particularly groundbreaking: a Holst work that is relatively unknown, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which is by now considered ‘standard’ 20th-century fare, and a Singaporean work commissioned for the Arts Festival. However, a quick browse through the OMM’s past repertoire reveals that the orchestra has yet to play any repertoire by the who’s who of 20th-century composers (not counting their concert of film soundtracks). Their mainstay repertoire so far has been Classical and Romantic composers, with a recent venture into Late Romantic Russians and Impressionistic French composers. This concert, then, would be a mark of the OMM’s musical maturity: would they be able to handle music that is based on a different building block from what had gone before?

Gustav Holst’s (right) Oriental Suite “Beni-Mora” is not as well-known or oft-played as his more famous “Planets” Suite, or even his First and Second Suites for Military Band. It explores the exotic harmonies and melodies of the Orient which were just starting to garner interest in music circles at the time. Although the inflections and Eastern rhythms may be considered cliched by today’s audiences, the public of Holst’s time could not connect to his Suite because it was simply too far removed from the usual Western musical idiom.

The Suite was nevertheless written in the conventional symphonic tradition, and the OMM found itself on comfortable footing from the start. Floating wind melodies contrasted well with more aggressive dance rhythms, in a musical evocation of a Middle-Eastern setting. The musicians were strong and confident, giving a performance that most professional orchestras would not be shy of.

An intermission followed — a rather unusual occurrence since the first piece was only 17 minutes long. However, this would be explained by learning a bit of background about the programme of the second half.

Ho Chee Kong (left, http://hocheekong.com/) is no stranger to Singaporean music lovers and students. He is Associate Professor and Head of Composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, but more importantly, also prolific composer whose works and commissions have been performed extensively all over the world. He sits on several national arts advisory committees, and is the founding President of the Composers Society of Singapore.

Passage“, subtitled a Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, was commissioned by the National Arts Council for the Singapore Arts Festival 2012. This world premiere is given by cellist Li-Wei Qin, widely regarded as one of the most important Chinese cellists of his generation. According to Dr Chang Tou-Liang, a respected local music reviewer, Ho conceptualised this piece as a kind of prequel to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Echoing the story behind Stravinsky’s Rite, “Passage” describes a wise man seeking help with interpreting a vision; hearing the voice of the Earth; the heralding of a dark spring; seeing the Chosen One; and the final realisation of the fatality of his vision.

Audiences familiar with Ho will know roughly what to expect of his compositions: a contemporary style with shifting tonality and a haunting, sometimes Zen-like, lyricism with heavy Asian influences. However, nothing prepared me for experiencing the composition brought to life by musicians in front of me. As Li-Wei launched into the cello solo that began a musical question, listeners were drawn into a sound-world of exotic Eastern melodies, with subtle note-bending and other modern virtuosic techniques. Li-Wei has complete mastery over both the instrument and the music, and proved himself worthy of the accolades heaped so extravagantly upon him. Even when the orchestra joined in, the cellist weaved comfortably along as the unfettered star of the show.

Somewhere in the middle, while cello and orchestra were having a spirited conversation with rising agitation, a sudden thought struck me: this was a similar experience to hearing Yo-yo Ma in John Williams’ soundtrack for the film Seven Years In Tibet, where Williams tried to evoke the idea of exoticism and rarity with Western notation and harmonies.

In contrast, Ho uses a fusion of Western and Eastern harmonies to achieve a similar end; here, demonstrating why he is considered one of the finest Singaporean composers of his generation. His firm academic grasp of the subtleties of atonality and technical details belie an ability to convey raw emotion and musical thought; with very advanced sound palette that made Stravinsky sound dated. However, the result was never jarring, and the cello and orchestra were able to hold a spirited to-and-fro and take the audience on a meandering storyline as befits a Fantasy.

The orchestra was fine in this avant-garde work; some of them admitted to Dr Chang that they had never even played Stravinsky before, so it came as a bit of a surprise that they could pull this off so well. Kudos must also be given to Maestro Chan for his authoritative direction, no doubt aided by having the benefit of being able to confer with the composer in person during preparation.

After the long applause for “Passage” died down, Li-Wei (right) sat down at the back — near the choral risers — and gave what I initially thought was a solo encore, but which quickly transpired to be the final coda of “Passage”, with a similar harmony and style. The recitative-like passage segued into the famous opening bassoon solo of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, bringing to fruition Ho’s idea of a ‘prequel’ to the latter piece. The winds and brass played admirably well in the Stravinsky, giving loud brassy entries where required; the woodwinds were amazing, switching between harsh angularity and ephemeral wind-like rustles. The orchestra even brought in the ‘big guns’ — two Wagner tubas which the composers scored for — played by two horn players. (But why was there only one tuba?)

On the downside, I did not feel as connected to the music in Rite as I did in Passage; certainly, I did not feel the freneticism that literally caused a riot in Paris during the work’s premiere in 1913. The orchestra played the score well, with confident entries and a rich full sound, but somehow I was left feeling that the performance was just that: the players were too focused on playing the score to actually let loose and play the devil.

While I am sure all the players can play rolling Romantic repertoire and virtuosic late Romantic well, 20th-century music requires a sort of acerbic intellectualism borne out of cynicism and worldly ennui that, perhaps, some of the players have yet to inculcate, seeing as the average age of the orchestra members is 21! One could only speculate that Maestro Chan perhaps did not dare to introduce too much ferocity and wild abandon normally associated with the sacrificing of virgins, in case the orchestra ran off and got lost in the technical maze of the piece.

All in all, it was an eye-opening evening, not least because of the evocative performance of Ho Chee Kong’s “Passage” premiered by Li-Wei Qin and the OMM. The orchestra has also managed to cut its teeth on 20th-century avant-garde works; my conclusion is that while the orchestra is quite capable of performing them as well as any professional orchestra can, some growing-into would make future performances even better and tighter. I hope that OMM will continue to grow musically and to offer alternative programmes to the more, shall we say, traditional repertoire that we hear on Friday and Saturday nights. Bravo!

Editor’s Note: This review marks Kian Hing’s return to TFI after a looong hiatus. Welcome back, KH!

 

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