Qin Li-Wei leaves 50 breathless in Haydn as OMM Restarts

Franz Schubert (arr. Lee Jinjun) – Erlkönig for String Orchestra
Jonathan Shin – Folk Games for String Orchestra (World Premiere)
Joseph Haydn – Allegro moderato from Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major (cadenza by Jonathan Shin)
Encore: Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 arr. for cello and orchestra
John Rutter – Suite for Strings
Encore: About half of ‘Chan Mali Chan’ from ‘Folk Games for String Orchestra’

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Tzelaw Chan conductor

Qin Li-Wei cello

5pm, Sunday, 11 Oct 2020
Singapore Conference Hall

Concert Review by Derek Lim

As arts groups take their first, cautious steps toward restarting performances, the question that’s often been asked is ‘how many audience members can safely watch a performance in a given venue?’ Not so often asked, but just as important is ‘how will Covid-19 have affected performance standards?’

This evening’s hour-long performance by the Orchestra of the Music Makers was part of a National Arts Council (NAC) pilot with several arts groups, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra included, to iron out the logistical issues with contact tracing.

All 50 audience members were asked to use TraceTogether, either in dongle or app form, before entering the hall. Seats were preassigned and audience members were reminded to wear their masks at all times, not to change seats even if empty ones were available, and not to hang around and mingle in the foyer after the concert, effectively removing the social element of the concert.

This hardly detracted from the relief and joy I felt at being back in the concert hall.

The pared-down OMM – reduced to about 20 or so string players and two winds (2 oboes and 2 horns) – all wearing masks, took a while to warm up to the SCH’s dry acoustic.

First up was Lee Jinjun’s arrangement of Schubert’s Erlkönig. Known for the immense difficulty of its piano accompaniment and the dramatic opportunities afforded by the vocal part, the use of only strings in this arrangement had the effect of smoothening everything over – perhaps a greater exaggeration of the accents and dynamics, and more open strings would be appropriate in conjuring the bristling urgency of the galloping steed’s hooves.

The second work, a world premiere of Jonathan Shin’s “Folk Games”, was in effect three well-known “Singapore songs” strung together in ironic musical pastiche. Rasa Sayang was arranged a là fifth-symphony Shostakovich (with maybe just a touch of Prokofiev). Van Moring/SBC’s “Singapura (Sunny Island)”, a languid arrangement of the main tune bookending a spiky middle section, courts tragedy in its last passages but shies away at the last minute to end in an unresolved chord (why?). The coda of the last piece, Chan Mali Chan, wants to bluster up to a Triumphant Glorious Finale but ends up giving that up in favour of something more Puckish. So abrupt was its end that conductor Chan Tze Law had to cue the audience in for applause.

Qin Li-Wei, all masked up. Everyone’s all masked up.

Qin Li-Wei’s performance of the first movement Haydn second cello concerto was the evening’s highlight. He swallowed the piece whole and delivered it with an impossible mixture of suave refinedness and bravura virtuosity.

Always interacting with the orchestra, he underlined passages like a seasoned orator while traversing the entire fingerboard effortlessly, yet always stylishly. Jonathan Shin’s monstrously difficult cadenza was an anachronistic pastiche of Russian romanticism while serving as a sumptuous display for Qin’s hyper-passionate virtuosity – so much so that the coda that followed sounded deflated.

John Rutter’s Suite for Strings was the perfect bonbon to end the short concert. The strings blended together sweetly and lovingly, especially in the lyrical passages. In the hymn-like ‘O Waly Waly’, perhaps known by most as ‘The Water is Wide’, I closed my eyes for a little and sighed a little sigh behind my mask – for the music that I had so missed.

Did Covid-19 affect our brave performers tonight? Perhaps the answer is, how could it not? Performers are driven by, well, performing, and thrive on the audience’s energy in the course of performance; audiences gain at least as much back. And standards are upheld by the constant act of preparing, rehearsing and polishing technique, musicality and chemistry for concerts.

So yes, this wasn’t OMM at its best. But it was a hugely welcome start. Thank you, OMM. It was a treat.

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