Concert Review: Joseph Alessi, The Singapore Wind Symphony, conductor Adrian Tan

swsalessiLeonard Bernstein : Overture to Candide (arr. Clare Grundman)
Alexandre Guilmant (Arr. Wesley Shepard) : Morceau Symphonique
Terrence Wong Fei Yang (World Premiere): Empire
Paul Creston: Celebration Overture
Philip Sparke: ‘Sambezi from Trombone Concerto
Bill Whelan (arr. Johan de Meij): The Seville Suite – from Kinsale to La Coruna
Arthur Pryor: Air Varie
Meredith Willson (arr. Naohiro Iwai): 76 Trombones

Joseph Alessi, trombone

Singapore Wind Symphony
Adrian Tan, music director
4pm, Esplanade Concert Hall, 23 Feb 2014

Review by Derek Lim

The greatest orchestral players are far better known for their symphonic solos than concerto work. Today, we had the honour of hearing one of the most fêted trombonists of our time, Joseph Alessi of the New York Philharmonic. Securing him with the all-amateur Singapore Wind Symphony must count a major coup for music director Adrian Tan.

But this concert also marked another, even more significant, milestone, because Alessi was in also in town to premiere 24-year old Singaporean composer Terrence Wong’s trombone concerto, ‘Empire’ – a tremendous show of confidence in Wong’s abilities on the trombonist’s part – in Hollywood terms, akin to getting Meryl Streep to act in a local film. Appropriately, spotted in the audience were luminaries of the Singapore musical scene – Lim Yau, Zechariah Goh Toh Chai among others.

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Music Director Adrian Tan

The band opened with Bernstein’s Candide Overture, fast becoming Adrian Tan’s calling card, played effectively here, even if opening jitters were apparent and issues with timing the lower brass were concerns and exposed writing proved problematic in the woodwinds. Guilmant’s ‘Morceau Symphonic’ served as a tasty aural amuse-bouche that barely stretched Alessi, before we moved to the concerto.

Terrence Wong’s concerto is technically accomplished, and certainly for a young composer putting together a larger structure such as this for an unusual combination of solo instrument and band, this concerto has to count as a major achievement. However, his voice as a composer can safely be said to be developing rather than already fully-developed.

‘Empire’ was originally titled ‘Scenes from Mangkunegara’, inspired by the ancient kingdom in Central Java, but apart from moments in the first movement, I didn’t pick up anything distinctly Javanese about it. Post-modern in technique, the work can probably be described as in the minor key, but with slightly free tonality. The work is in three continuous ‘sections’, fast-slow-fast, without a break. The first section depicted the palace, began promisingly, with a focus on rhythmic elements, coupled with a ruminative, contemplative trombone part rather than a brilliant, declamatory approach. Alessi’s beautifully burnished tone came off here magisterially. Exchanges of musical ideas between the soloist and orchestra developed nebulously and somewhat organically, with several interestingly written sections which I feel could have benefited from a clearer narrative.

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Composer Terrence Wong

The second section, a Bartókian nocturne, had beautifully written sections which lingered a little too long, refusing to move on, but when they did, culminated in impressive, almost expressionistic outbursts – certainly not a peaceful city, this. Here, the mournful, lyrical trombone offset the restless orchestra. A brief cadenza showed off Alessi’s remarkable pianissimo playing, while not sacrificing expression and a beautiful. tone. Shades of Shostakovich in his second cello concerto marked the unsettling end to this movement.

The final section, ‘Furioso’, played attacca, shot off like a bolt of lightning, with the war-like percussion leading the way. Here, rhythm again took precedence over melody, with the trombone again playing a commentary role rather than leading the music. Moments of true terror inhabited this movement, but instead of triumph, it ended in a dirge, with pounding timpanis lending, again, a very second Viennese-school feel to it – a funeral for the empire, surely? All considered, a most auspicious debut on the ‘big stage’ for Wong, and what better way than with Joseph Alessi, Adrian Tan and the valiant Singapore Wind Symphony.

76trombones

The Singapore Wind Symphony, playing ’76 Trombones’

The second half featured another ‘first’ – Paul Creston’s ‘Celebration Overture’, where Alessi took over the baton from Adrian Tan in his conducting premiere – a worthy effort. Serendipitously, it was comissioned in 1955 by Edwin Franko Goldman, founder of the Goldman Band — the first professional concert band in America, and in which Alessi’s own father, Joseph Alessi Sr., played as trumpeter, lending a lovely aptness.

Pieces sans trombone included ‘The Seville Suite’ by Bill Whelan, in a technically demanding arrangement by de Meij, in which the capable SWS led by Tan proved themselves perfectly up to the challenge.  The rest of the music comprised attractive showpieces calculated to show off Alessi’s virtuosity to best advantage – ranging from Sparke’s ‘Sambezi’ from his trombone concerto – a samba that got members of the audience bobbing their heads a little to the beat, to the devilishly difficult ‘Air Varie’ by Arthur Pryor – basically Paganini for the trombone – where Alessi’s nimbleness drew gasps from the audience. A pioneer virtuoso of the trombone, Pryor played in Sousa’s band with the March King himself, and entertained King Edward VII of England and Czar Nicholas II of Russia with his trombone solos. His works for the trombone are still held in the highest regard as present-day standards for the instrument, and Alessi nailed them with the greatest of ease obliging with another Pryor piece – the ‘Fantastic Polka’ – before coming in with 18 other trombonists for the final, very festive ’76 Trombones’ – a crowd pleaser that brought the house down.

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