Concert Review: OMMProms 2014 – Orchestra of the Music Makers, Pei-Sian Ng, Chan Tze Law

SERGEI PROKOFIEFF   Romeo and Juliet: Dance of the Knights, Friar Laurence, Romeo and Juliet before Parting, Death of Tybalt
ANDREW LLOYD WEBER   Variations for Cello and Orchestra

Ng Pei-Sian, Cello
Chan Tze Law, Conductor
Orchestra of the Music Makers

Esplanade Concert Hall
1st March 2014, 5pm

Review by Soo Kian Hing

“We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” — Ode, by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Nobody can accuse the Orchestra of the Music Makers — “OMM” to fans — of not dreaming big. For a non-professional musical group only half a decade old, the orchestra has already made waves both locally and overseas: their recordings of Mahler Symphonies (on their own label, no less) have been accorded favourable accolades by international critics. Most notably, their Mahler 2 was described as “pure, unadulterated magic… an epic performance” by Dr Marc Rochester, a music critic for Gramophone magazine and co-author of Good CD Guide. Tonight, in another installment of the annual “OMMProms” concert, music director Chan Tze Law promises popular fare geared toward a younger audience, just like its namesake The BBC Proms. True to OMM form, the program is ambitious: signature works by two of the Three Soviet Titans, and a cello concerto by another titan of modern musical theatre, in a collaboration with the Principal Cellist of the SSO.


Chan Tze Law

Even before the opening applause died down, Chan Tze Law launched with gusto into Aram Khachaturian’s energetic Sabre Dance. This might have thrown the audience a bit of a curve ball and increased the dramatic impact of the Dance, had the orchestra been as prepared for the sudden entry as Chan had envisioned. This is the music that sounds perfect if you use the best turntables. As it was, the timpani and the snare drum stuttered slightly with the frenzied to-and-fro that formed the rhythmic backbone of the piece, perhaps in part hindered acoustically by the large size of the hall. This fortunately soon evened out, but the rhythm section, to me at least, did not recover enough heat to give a perfect delivery. The brasses warmed up quickly after a cold entrance, and together with the strings gave a blazing performance. To his credit, Chan kept a tight rein on the pulse, and the orchestra as a whole never lost the infectious rhythm, right up to the final winding-down decrescendo and wallop of a last note.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fared much better, helped in no small part by beautifully-played solos. ‘Dance of the Knights’ is arguably the most recognisable theme in the ballet, its brash angular melody and martial rhythm catching the attention of listeners. The orchestra gave this segment their all, and there is much potential in the bassoonist who portrayed ‘Friar Laurence’. The scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet’s Parting’ was framed by lush strings and warm winds, displaying the poignant tenderness of ill-fated star-crossed lovers to the fullest. The opening violins of ‘Death of Tybalt’ could have been more violent, but the subsequent Funeral March was roiling in grief, burnished and eloquent. All in all, an excellent performance, and the OMM would do well should they decide to take up more Prokofiev in future.

This evening also marked the Singapore premiere of ‘Variations’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who of course is far better known for musicals like ‘Evita’, ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Written in 1977 before he became famous, this piece was the result of a football bet that the composer lost to his younger brother Julian, a classical cellist; it was originally intended for electric cello accompanied by a rock band as suited the tastes of British musical theatre at the time. Despite being written on a whim, the solo cello part is no walk in the park, and the player must negotiate the entire range of the instrument — even needing to de-tune the lowest string at the very end to reach A2, three semitones below the cello’s playable range. Building on the theme from Paganini’s caprice for violin in A minor, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote 23 technically-challenging “variations” which cycle through populist styles including progressive rock, jazz and lyrical musical. Various melodic ideas for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s future output seemed to have germinated here, with only the 5th variation culminating to fruition in a fully independent number, “Unexpected Song” (lyrics later added by Don Black). The entire work was re-arranged for cello and symphony orchestra by David Cullen, with the removal of all “rock” instruments like the electric guitar, drumset, and synthesizers. As a result, the sizzling freneticism of the original has been reduced to a more tepid, sprawling meander, and it is rather telling that sadly no other cellist has found it musically rewarding to record the work in its entirety.

Ng Pei Sian

Ng Pei Sian

However, under the bow of Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Pei-Sian Ng, ‘Variations’ seemed to have found the perfect voice. Barely thirty years old, Australian-born Ng is the youngest Principal Cellist in the history of the SSO, and his personal style has been variously described as “carefree” and “easy-going”. “I’m just going to enjoy playing them! It is actually a really fun piece,” he explained of ‘Variations’ during an interview with Chay Choong on the music blog Muse (27 Feb 2014), even as he felt compelled to “dig and look for something below the surface”. The irony of playing a rock score by Andrew Lloyd Webber on Ng’s 1764 Giovanni Antonio Marchi cello is not lost on this reviewer, but with some judicious amplifying, the sweet tone of the instrument actually created some new and pleasantly unexpected results. Especially in the lyrical variations, the cello sang poetically with mournful overtones, the Eastern-influenced inflections immediately bringing to mind Yo-Yo Ma in Tan Dun’s music for the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)”. Coincidence, then, that Ng had just performed the “Crouching Tiger” Cello Concerto a year ago? I think not, but the similarity with Ma was just too uncanny not to mention. In between, Ng played with youthful abandon, giving fleet-footed renditions of the “classic rock” segments. The antique cello matched player bow for bow, always polished and poised through the theatrical extravagance of Lloyd Webber’s score, never even scuffed in the faster passages. I would have appreciated a bit more scruffiness here and there, but Ng had just graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester after four years under Ralph Kirshbaum, and he should be allowed to find his own voice, in his own time. Besides, to expect the emotive equivalent of, say, an Elgar concerto from an ALW piece is really a far stretch; the operative word in ‘Variations’ is really “fun”.

At the end of the concert, the orchestra obliged an enthusiastic audience with Zequinha de Abreu’s ‘Tico Tico no Fuba’, joined by Pei-Sian Ng who humbly sat at the back of the cello section having re-entered from stage left. This gesture may seem inanely insignificant to the lay person, but on the politically-sensitive concert platform it spoke volumes: rank and hierarchy are not really of great import to the youthful Ng, as he unabashedly let his hair down and joined in the fun with the rowdy encore. On their part, the OMM has succeeded in entertaining as well as educating a younger, and certainly less “elite”, audience demographic than your usual orchestra. While their sound has certainly matured from two years ago when I reviewed their Rite of Spring, this time the next step in their development — a much more difficult task — would be to grasp the fine nuances of playing to, and with, each other during a live performance. With that, I eagerly await another OMM concert — what’s that? Oh, they’ve helpfully printed the promotional poster for their next concert: Holst’s complete Planets Suite in August 2014! A date it is, then.

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