Concert Review: Eastman Camerata

Mendelssohn String Symphony: No. 1 in C major
David Diamond: Rounds for String Orchestra
Grieg: 2 Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34
Adeline Wong: Empunya Yang beroleh Sita Dewi
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony Op. 110a – arr. Barshai

Eastman Camerata
Joshua Tan Kang Ming, conductor

Esplanade Recital Studio
28 Feb 2020

Review by Derek Lim

Although billed as the Eastman Camerata, the ensemble tonight could have just as aptly been named ‘Eastman alumni and friends’, with certain quarters made up entirely of guest performers – this was in large part due to some performers dropping out before the performance.

No matter. It was an auspicious start to what may prove to be a recurring act, bringing together Eastman graduates in Singapore, many of whom have not been playing professionally since their cold Rochester days.

Joshua Tan, already ubiquitous in his many appearances with orchestras both professional and amateur, made his appearance as an alumnus, leading the 14-strong string ensemble through their paces. 

If somewhat rusty and with their fair share of intonation problems in the sunny Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 1 – a more enthusiastic than polished performance – they quickly found their way back with a far more sure-footed Rounds for Orchestra by David Diamond (an illustrious Eastman alumnus). 

Brilliant and rhythmically vital in the first movement, there was plenty of colour and shade in the warm second movement Adagio, with solo turns fully taken advantage of. The last movement was appropriately witty. 

With deepening chemistry between the players as the evening grew long, the Grieg Two Elegiac Melodies, Op.34 showed much passion and tonal beauty. 

Impressive, too, was Malaysian composer (and Eastman alumna) Adeline Wong’s 2007 piece ‘Empunya Yang beroleh Sita Dewi’, or ‘He who possesses Sita Dewi’. Written for the Malaysian Philharmonic who commissioned it, this was a 10-minute long strings-only condensation of the original 30-minute piece, which in its original instrumentation included other orchestral sections, as the composer herself eloquently introduced.

A programmatic work, it traces from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Sita Dewi’s kidnapping by the ogre king Rawana while she takes a bath in a spring. Seri Rama, her husband, sends Hanuman to fight Rawana and rescue her, but as Wong explained, the ending feels ambiguous, with the feeling that Sita Dewi doesn’t belong to herself. Concentrated and full of musical tension, the work, written for divided individual string parts, started off on sustained notes with tailing downward glissandos. Longing, uncertainty and unease were evoked, and there was in sections a certain meditative quality, showing off the ensemble’s brilliant tonal quality and Mao Chengyu’s eloquent cello, leading up to its feverish, anguished end.

Perhaps less captivating was the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony – Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet. Though bristling with energy, this extroverted interpretation eschewed the darkness for more overt expression. In a piece that requires, if anything, more cohesion to cohere, the disparate styles heard from the individual players meant that some were more keen to emote than others, whereas a more chilly, reptilian coolheadedness would have been preferred. The door knocks in the dead of the night, for example, were more angry and insistent than shocking and the concluding Adagio more passionate than elegiac. 

All in all, it was an enjoyable first outing that bodes well for future performances.

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