Concert Review: The Philharmonic Orchestra: New Year’s Eve Countdown Gala Concert 2015/16
The Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve 2016 Countdown Gala Concert
31 Dec 2015
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Review by Aileen Tang
There is something special about 31st December, full of nostalgia and hope, looking back at the year’s joys and losses, achievements and disappointments, and projecting forward to plans and aspirations, pledges and reconciliations.
The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) certainly managed to do all that in their fifth edition of their New Year’s Eve Countdown Gala Concert, where about 600 or so people – on and off stage – celebrated the arrival of 2016. Not quite as famous as the Vienna Philharmonic’s iconic New Year’s Eve concert, it has nonetheless become part of some concert-goers’ tradition, with many repeat attendees in the audience. Hosted by William Ledbetter, who engaged the audience admirably throughout, we were promised “toe-tapping music” and “free-flowing champagne”.
Spirits were high (no pun intended) right from the start, bolstered by the pre-concert reception where ewineasia.com had plied the early birds with champagne, as the programme began with Music Director Lim Yau leading the orchestra in Otto Nicolai’s Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor. Here, the atmospheric resonance of the lower strings’ smooth-as-Bailey’s introduction paved the way for the upper strings and later, the woodwind to take over. The relatively large brass section overpowered the strings, in contrast to the rather subdued violins, who nevertheless came into their element in the rollicking waltz. While the textures and interplay between the strings and woodwind mounted in excitement, Lim’s more sober tempo did not quite yield the majesty of the climax.
All in good fun and in line with New Year nostalgia, we were treated to a slideshow of TPO’s happy memories from 2015 while 26-year old Terrence Wong (who Ledbetter quipped was in fact Lim Yau, post elixir of youth photo: left) took over for Johann Strauss II’s Pizzicato Polka. The strings’ music box-like plucking, though not quite spot-on at the start, was delightful and a felicitously light-hearted accompaniment to photos announcing Concertmaster Edward Tan’s new baby, graduations, a new romantic relationship, and the latest Star Wars movie. Such was the infectious celebration of good times that the orchestra sounded almost magical in the way the dynamics were lifted from a Tinkerbell-like pianissimo to a good-natured resounding forte, and then delicately placed down again. A slightly messy ending, but the audience was firmly enthralled.
Fairy dust was likewise liberally sprinkled on the orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, which saw the string musicians fairly waltzing along with the music, giving a full-bodied sound, with graceful yet precise phrasing. One could easily imagine the flutes as persistent birds in a picturesque setting, but it was a touch too restrained at times and Wong did not take full advantage of the piece’s overtly romantic possibilities.
Familiarity was the order of the day as the orchestra offered two movements from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. The flutes and oboes brought out the serenity of the early morning in ‘Morning Mood’. Delicately, if a tad swiftly handled, the piece was fully aglow by the time the strings took over the melody, the cellos standing out in particular with their noble sound and precise phrasing. However, this really was a piece for the flute to shine, as crisp and bright as a morning brimming with hope. The bassoons took the lead in ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. In lieu of sounding merely like mysterious plodding footsteps, there was a cheekiness exuded in their portrayal of the gnomes chasing after Peer Gynt. Rather than full horsepower frenetic exhilaration that would have left the audience breathless, the gradual accelerando was instead remarkable for its control.
Not so immediately familiar was David Lovrien’s Minor Alterations, but the first few bars quickly resolved any doubts the audience may have had. In this parody, well-known Christmas songs are literally given a minor twist. One would think that “Deck The Halls” in a minor key would be ominous and unsettling; yet it sounded really delightful. I am sure many in the audience had an amusing time trying to guess the songs included; I counted “Sleigh Ride” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, to name a couple. Giggles and hums emanated from the audience, as though that was how they had always heard them! I must admit that this piece was my personal favourite that night and I do wish that malls would play this version instead.
At twenty minutes to the New Year, the mood turned solemn. Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam: Benjamin Britten accompanied a presentation of those who left us in 2015, among whom were luminaries of the fields of film, music and sports. Originally written to mourn the death of the English composer, the insistent chime of the tubular bell on the single note ‘A’ mimicked the tolling of the funeral bell. The strings, restrained and plaintive, added to the evocative and haunting sombre mood. The final image was that of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, followed by a list of the some of the natural disasters around the world which have caused so much distress and loss, before ending with a message of hope and prayer for 2016. Ledbetter (right) then led the audience in a moment of silent reflection which was followed by his heartfelt reading of 2 poems. The 2nd, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, ended with a reference to the crossroads of time – a fitting symbol of being on the cusp of a new year.
The final programmed piece was Ottorino Respighi’s The Appian Way from “Pines of Rome”, conducted once again by Lim. This symphonic poem depicts the footsteps of the Roman army marching triumphantly as represented by the timpani gradually building in intensity. The oboe sounded like a snake charmer in his element, weaving his sinuous melody with the clarinet’s response swirling in. The trombones entered stoically and then the trumpets, followed by the horns. The music built up to a full orchestral sound which filled the concert hall, with an additional brass quartet standing above the stage in proclamation. On the screen, a clock face was projected with the second hand edging ever closer toward 12, the audience’s attention fixed on the screen, preparing themselves for the final 10 seconds of the year, as Lim led the orchestra to the piece’s climax exactly at 12. As the audience released their poppers and streamers, the balloons held captive at the ceiling for so long were finally released, and happy faces were all around.
Johann Strauss I’s Radetsky March by rounded up the evening, with the audience clapping along. The tubist, without anything to play, busied himself filming the merriment with his phone, while Ledbetter and Wong danced arm in arm.
Toe-tapping? Not all the time. Free-flowing champagne? They ran out. But a jolly good time was had and there is something to be said about starting 2016 at a concert hall listening to an orchestra play. Not a bad way to start the year at all.