Singapore Milhaud, Bruch, Beethoven: Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Tseng Yu-Chien (violin), Choo Hoey (conductor), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore, 14.08.2014 (RP)
Milhaud: La création du monde, Op. 81
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
At the age of 80, conductor Choo Hoey has a distinguished career behind him. Just about to turn 21, violinist Tseng Yu-Chien is at the start of what portends to be a brilliant one. Classical music is one of the rare endeavors where talent on such extreme ends of the age spectrum meet. The frisson created by such pairings is often remarkable, and such was the case in this concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).
Choo was the SSO’s founding Music Director and Resident Conductor. Returning to Singapore (where he took up the violin as a student) from Europe in 1979 to build an orchestra, he faced a daunting task. As he tells it, “Singapore had nothing at that time. There was no music school. Where do you get talent to form an orchestra?” He led 41 musicians, mostly expatriates and students, in the SSO’s first concert that same year. It was his resourcefulness and dedication that laid the foundation for the SSO to evolve into the world class orchestra that it is today. Upon stepping down in 1996, he was named Conductor Emeritus. Now semiretired and living in Greece, Choo remains a vital presence on the Singapore music scene.
Tseng was just awarded second prize in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. It was the highest honor in the violin competition: there was no first prize, which is sometimes the case with the Tchaikovsky. This past January, he won the top prize in the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition. Since 2008 Tseng has studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has notched up other wins at international competitions. He is beginning to make his presence known on international concert stages and in the recording studio. From the cheers of the audience and the long line seeking his autograph and the chance to snap a wefie with him, Tseng clearly has fans in Singapore.
Choo and Tseng joined forces in Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch, a prolific German Romantic composer and conductor whose career spanned the turn of the 20th century. The four-movement fantasy on Scottish folk melodies for violin and orchestra was first performed in 1881 with Joseph Joachim, one of the19th century’s great violinists as soloist, and Bruch himself conducting. The rapport here between conductor and soloist was obvious, as it was with orchestra and soloist. I had but one reservation about the performance: Choo never permitted the orchestra to overwhelm Tseng, but at times the violin could have been more present. The live acoustics in the Victoria Concert Hall (VCH) needed to be tamed to tip the balance.
The Bruch did not call upon Tseng’s pyrotechnical skills, which undoubtedly he has. Rather, it displayed his burnished, warm tone. These folk melodies often sit in the violin’s middle to lower range, the same as with the human voice, and musicians are encouraged to make their instruments sing. Tseng did, and his violin sang eloquently, often to the beautiful harp accompaniments of Gulnara Mashurova. The audience’s applause brought him repeatedly back on stage until he offered up a single encore ̶ the Grave from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2. It was mesmerizingly beautiful. Alone, center stage, his sound filled the hall.
Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde, which opened the concert, was the composer’s reaction to hearing real jazz for the first time in Harlem on a visit to the US. Premiered in Paris in 1923, the score is a wonderful example of the French love of exoticism and just mixing it all up: American jazz distilled to conjure up the creation of the world via Africa mythology. If much of it sounds familiar, it is because what was once novel has permeated our musical consciousness. “Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody,” Milhaud told his student Burt Bacharach, the American composer of many a hit tune. He followed his own advice. Along with the jagged, driving rhythms are beautiful melodies and solo passages for the alto saxophone, here played with style by Tang Xiao Ping. The 17 members of the orchestra dug into the piece with Choo clearly enjoying it immensely. The VCH acoustics are perfect for such smaller ensembles.
Post intermission, Choo and the orchestra delighted the audience with an energized performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Brisk tempi prevailed throughout. Those arching phrases, one of the true marks of Beethoven’s genius, were suspended momentarily in midair, providing the brief glimpses into eternity that the composer surely intended. With their backs up against the wall (literally), the sound of the horns and trombones reverberated throughout the hall. The woodwinds had a few intonation problems in the first movement, and the trumpets smudged a passage or two in the final one, but overall the orchestra was in fine form. When the final notes had sounded, Choo and the SSO were greeted with a thunderous ovation. Despite his entreaties, the orchestra refused to stand. Credit was given where credit was due.