Concert Review: The Orient with Kanon Matsuda, Musician’s Initiative, Alvin Arumugam, 30 Aug 2019

The Orient with Kanon Matsuda
Glinka : Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture
Tchaikovsky:  Piano Concerto No.1, Op.23
Rimsky-Korsakov:  Scheherazade, Op.35

Musicians’ Initiative
Alvin Seville Arumugam

Victoria Concert Hall
30 August 2019

Review by Derek Lim

First the good news – there are some really good musicians in this orchestra. Although they may not be as large as some of their other competitors, the Musicians’ Initiative – formerly The Young Musicians’ Foundation Orchestra (they have just rebranded) – are capable of making a full-throated cry that’s up there with the best of Singapore’s other amateur orchestras.

We started the evening with a crackling Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. A familiar favourite, it was taken at breakneck speed without sacrificing accuracy, showcasing a string section that, though somewhat top-heavy, had a winning resonance.

Trouble started in Kanon Matsuda’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. This was a curiously uninvolved rendition, and despite a high level of note accuracy, the performance was alarmingly flat. There is more than one way to play this tired warhorse – from Cliburn’s stately majesty to Horowitz’s febrile virtuosity – but unfortunately, Matsuda showed neither barnstorming virtuosity or much poetry at the keyboard. 

Kanon Matsuda, photo credit – Ayako Yamamoto

In one of the climactic passages of the last movement, for example, Tchaikovsky builds up the excitement with a long, protracted, operatic crescendo and the soloist is expected to explode into a joyful volley of double octaves. Here it was nearly mechanical, with a crushing matter-of-factness that informed the rest of her performance.

Neither was there much chemistry between conductor and soloist – no sparks in a work where frisson is so important. The first movement coda was particularly strange, with the conductor deliberately slowing down, at odds with the soloist, who seemed to want to speed up at this point. 

The second half of this all-Russian program was Scheherazade. As Rimsky-Korsakov’s titular protagonist, concertmistress Jocelyn Ng put up a strong, musical performance with a lovely tone, showing nerves of steel in her solo passages and some impressive technique, even if her violin didn’t always cooperate. Principal cellist Theophilus Tan was a joy to listen to and made my heart want to sing with each solo. 

The winds – clarinet, flute, bassoon, and horn – all made their mark in their obligato parts especially in ‘The Prince and the Princess’, though the hornist needed a little time to warm up. Individual sections sparkled and there was not a single misfire from the brass all evening.

But this was a performance which didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts. Alvin Seville Arumugam paid far more attention to colour, to the detriment of structure. Scheherazade is a symphonic suite, emphasis on symphonic; his conducting, while often exciting in the extended climactic episodes (for example, in The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman), missed the symphonic argument and lacked basic phrasing and building of passages.

The result was something more of an orchestral fantasy – mushy, episodic and unnecessarily incohesive, making for sometimes tedious listening. 

The Musicians’ Initiative is an ensemble brimming with potential waiting to be unlocked. Let’s hope they find the key in their next concert with Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. 

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