OMM Make the Most of Pandemic Restrictions in Wind and Brass Double-Bill Premieres
Music Unmasked: Symphony for Winds, Brass, and Percussion
Richard Strauss (arr. Shore) Der Rosenkavalier Harmoniemusik (Singapore Premiere)
Lee Jinjun Symphony for Brass and Percussion “The Times Have Changed” (World Premiere)*
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Seow Yibin, Conductor (Strauss)
Chan Tze Law, Conductor (Lee)
1 October 2021, 7.30pm
Esplanade Concert Hall
Review by Derek Lim
If necessity is the mother of invention then the pandemic, with social distancing and all that entails, must be its grandmother – the gift that keeps giving. Maybe I’m extrapolating, and nowhere does Nigel Shore say why he arranged his ‘Harmoniemusik’, from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, for wind instruments, but its publication just last year (it was only premiered this April) provided an ideal platform for OMM to flex their wind instrumentalist’s musical muscles.
Written for 15 wind instrumentalists (but played by 16 in the OMM), it is arranged in three 15-minute-long movements corresponding to each Act of Strauss’ beloved opera, a sort of musical precis, with each musical act beginning with the corresponding prelude in the opera. The arrangement is for 2 flutes, (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, (2nd doubling English horn), 4 clarinets, playing the whole range of clarinets, including basset-horn and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, a contrabassoon and 4 horns.
Taken as a piece on its own, it provides the audience with a decent facsimile of what happens in the opera, sans voices of course, and a chance to hear some really good wind musicians strut their stuff.
There were opportunities aplenty here, with many solo turns from most of the musicians, but especially with the horns, oboe and clarinet – principal horn Alexander Oon’s superbly rendered Italian tenor aria in Act I was meltingly beautiful and achingly nostalgic. Oboe principal Tay Kai Tze was luminous in the ‘Presentation of the Rose’, while the flute principal Miao Shan Shan joined her horn and oboe counterparts with devastating emotional effect in the closing Final Trio.
The ensemble impressed in the tutti passages too, especially in Strauss’ busy, counterpoint-laden Act III Prelude, where they really hit their stride under Seow Yibin’s capable baton, even if the Act I counterpart was just too chaste in its portrayal of a 17-year-old boy’s sexual conquest, and achieved a lovely tonal blend in the more lyrical passages.
The arrangement has its deficiencies too – I couldn’t help but miss the effect of the full orchestra, and especially the strings, in the opera’s famous waltz passages. A Viennese waltz without strings is, one might say, an abomination, as is the lack of the rhythm section for some oom-pah-pah goodness.
But none of this prevented this reviewer from becoming a hot mess at the end of Act III – a perfectly tuned and timed performance ‘Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein’ that cut right into the emotional heart of the music.
Clocking in at 25 minutes, 31-year-old trumpeter-composer Lee Jinjun’s ‘Symphony for Brass and Percussion – The Times Have Changed’, commissioned by OMM and receiving its world premiere tonight, is a band piece on steroids, with everything a band piece needs – shattering tutti climaxes, rallying trumpets, evocative lyrical passages and chorales and technically challenging music with lovely solos. Written in four movements, it is a tribute to the victims and unsung heroes of the recent pandemic and structured in the usual symphonic way, around a programme described in detail in the OMM’s notes.
The OMM brass and percussion (with the composer also playing trumpet) had a field day with the symphony, with conductor Chan Tze Law making the most of the music while letting the music speak for itself.
Lee is considerate to his players, with individual movements not outlasting their welcome. He is capable of building tension too – the first movement, slightly formless and nebulous in its beginning, culminates in a huge climax before collapsing and ending quietly. The Scherzo is sardonic, while the Adagio, with its flugelhorn and tuba solos, is grim, with a threnody-like climax.
While well-synthesized, and with a good feel of the colours the composer wants to achieve, I’d like to get a better feel of his own voice. There were several passages where I did a double-take – with tunes, rhythms, or passages from John Williams (a nearly note-for-note Kylo Ren theme), Mahler, Shostakovich and Bruckner and Holst making their appearance. Was this intentional? The notes don’t make this clear, and I am not familiar enough (yet) with the composer’s output to make an inference.
Whichever the case, this is an interesting addition to the band repertoire – if your band has 4 Wagner tubas and a really capable brass and percussion section. Congratulations to OMM, Lee Jinjun and Chan Tze Law for the successful world premiere!
Read our interview with Lee Jinjun, trumpeter Lim Jit Xin and oboist Tay Kai Tze here