Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra's 'Bridging Frontiers' in Review

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra with Maestro Chan Tze-Law at the podium showed an ensemble of largely young, technically secure and highly spirited players with a desire to impress and largely succeeding in doing so. This presentation of Asian and Western music, entitled Bridging Frontiers, is hopefully the first in a series of concerts where the orchestra takes centrestage in addition to more high-profile projects accompanying movies and musical theatre singers.

Starting with Dovrak's carnival overture, one is caught up in their spirited, energetic playing. Indeed this infectious energy is held high throughout the evening, driving forward with unyielding momentum and nary a note out of place. 

Lou Xi Jin's double erhu concerto Hymn of Wusuli, arranged for Western orchestra by Eric Watson and featuring local SCO players Ling Hock-Siang and Wilson Neo as soloists, was a real treat. With hummable melodic themes first played by the soloists and echoed by the orchestra in lush sweeping harmonies, it brings to mind Chinese water-colour paintings of epic mountain landscapes. While the slightly amplified Chinese instruments didn't really blend in with the western orchestral sound, it gave the soloists a distinct musical identity that helps them stand out. The concerto required both soloists to converse in melodies, echoing each other in phrases, and also to play in unison and parallel thirds, which they performed with great rapport. The third and last movement, a festive, percussion-driven piece, gave both soloists the opportunity to display virtuosic fireworks. The first half thus ended with quite a bang.

After the interval, the orchestra got to flex it's collective muscles again with Richard Strauss's demanding tone poem Don Juan. Solo parts were assigned to many players which displayed the strengths of their musicians. The horn section gave many exciting thrills in the piece's climax.

The last item on the programme, Richard Strauss's horn concerto no.1, was the only blemish in an otherwise perfect performance. Soloist Han Chang-Chou, described in the programme as 'internationally renowned Principal Horn of the SSO', gave a phoned-in performance of this repertory staple. Eyes fixated on the score, he seemed content to simply present a sweet tone and getting the notes right, investing no thought into the heroic themes that is the spirit of the piece. His nice and safe playing jarred against the orchestra's high octane performance, sounding like a midi accompaniment to their lively reading. His mastery of technique is indisputable; even the widest jumps and fastest runs hold no difficulty for him, but it's playing that has no personality nor risk taking, and ends up being pretty boring.

That said, If more local classical music concerts can play with the quality that the MFO displayed tonight, no one will ever say that classical music or the Singapore arts scene is boring. This orchestra presented a truly exciting edge-of-seat event tonight.  I hope that future events will see such similar or even greater standards of playing.

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