Published on Friday, 15 January 2010 23:31
Written by Bruce Gale
The 1,600 capacity Concert Hall was packed, and the music standards on display by some of the country’s best youth concert bands was outstanding, yet the efforts of the organisers to alert the local media proved fruitless. The weekly arts section of the Straits Times didn’t even bother to inform its readers of the event! Instead, the newspaper carried a brief announcement of a Beethoven recital by the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra scheduled for the following day in the much smaller Esplanade Recital Studio.
A charity event held to raise funds for the Community Chest, the concert showcased the three bands: the Nanyang Technological University’s Symphonic Band (NTUSB - which played host); the Nanyang Polytechnic Symphonic Band (NPSB) and the Victoria Junior College Symphonic Band (VJCSB). All three orchestras operate under the musical direction of Mr. Luk Hoi Yui, one of Singapore’s most well-known band directors.
This was a night when high standards were set.
Of the three bands, the NTUSB was the most experienced – and it showed! The close attention to detail, dynamic contrast and phrasing resulted in some superb musical moments. One can only imagine how much more impressive they must have sounded when, under pressure to perform their best, the band won accolades in international music competitions in Norway, Australia and the Netherlands in previous years. VJCSB played well. But the band, which won a gold medal at the Singapore Youth Festival in May this year, sounded tired by comparison, possibly due to lack of practice during the recent examination season. NPSB suffered from intonation problems. But this was a night when high standards were being set, and it is not really surprising that the generally younger performers in these two bands were found wanting when measured against NTUSB.
The marvellous acoustics at the Esplanade Concert Hall proved to be a double edged sword. While enabling the players to hear each other better during performance, leading to an overall improvement in blend as well as sonority, the improved acoustics also made fumbled entries and occasional intonation problems more obvious to the audience. Even so, this latter problem may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. By highlighting such imperfections, Singapore’s new concert hall is going to force the young bands who want to play there to pay more attention to such details, and we are likely to see yet further improvements in playing standards.
The combined band could have made greater use of the acoustics of the hall.
Judging from its placement at the end of the programme, the organisers probably meant T. Conway Brown’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to be the climax of the evening. Unfortunately, this was not the case for this reviewer – NTUSB’s rendition of Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini (James Barnes) was much better played. Perhaps one tends to be more critical of well-known Classical pieces, subconsciously demanding standards associated with world class orchestras. Even so, it appeared that the Tchaikovsky piece was not prepared with the same care as other works on the programme. For example, the combined band could have made greater use of the acoustics of the hall, playing the chorale-like opening bars (it is actually a Russian sacred hymn) much more softly and slowly so that the tremendous climax near the end would have been more pronounced and therefore more effective. More could also have been made of the various contrasts of texture and tone colour.
One of the challenges faced by any performers attempting the 1812 Overture is how to imitate the sounds of the cannon at the climax. The audience will certainly be listening for them and - for some observers at least - the performance of the work will always be judged by how impressively the sound is approximated. The combined band chose to use a recorded sound activated by a keyboard. Unfortunately, something went wrong with the sound system and only half the audience heard them. This was a real disappointment, particularly since the performers worked hard to produce a suitably dramatic musical backdrop.
It was well worth the slightly more expensive ticket price.
Overall, though, it was a great concert, well worth the slightly more expensive ticket price that one usually pays at venues such as the Victoria Concert Hall. And as a result of the huge turnout, the organisers will no doubt be presenting Singapore’s Community Chest with a fat cheque – no thanks to the efforts of the local media! Mr. Luk and his young performers have a lot to be proud of.