June 4, 2015

Master Works by Addo Chamber Orchestra – a review

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Master Works

Addo Chamber Orchestra, Clarence Tan, conductor; Christina Zhou, violin

SOTA Concert Hall

30 May 2015

 

Despite being the newest addition to the growing number of orchestras in Singapore, the Addo Chamber Orchestra has proven that new need not necessarily be a bad thing.

 

Opening the concert was Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a philosophical work which the composer questions life and its meaning, made popular by its use in the film Thin Red Line. The soft yet unwavering strings played a wordless chorale onstage in the darkened concert hall, providing a background to the enigmatic “perennial question of existence” that was the 5note motif posed by trumpeter Erik Tan, who stood playing at the back of the concert hall. The winds – a pair of flutes, a clarinet, and an oboe – sat up in the gallery, attempting with much confidence but futility to “answer” the trumpeter’s repeated questioning.

 

The first and most popular of Bruch’s four violin concertos started off with an out-of-tune timpani roll, and rolled along lethargically. The orchestra always seemed to be a split second behind soloist Christina Zhou, although conductor Clarence Tan spared much effort to get the energy levels higher to no avail. The wind section of the orchestra was solid, showing how good they were as a section and soloists. They were sometimes too strong at parts, as the low strings were few in number; for a more balanced sound it would have been better if the lower string section was larger. In contrast, Zhou was vibrantly passionate but not overbearing, harnessing a warm and rich tone from the 1854 Gagliano violin. The adagio was intimate and heart-breaking, especially during the moments of interaction with the cellos. Zhou brought out the cantabile lines beautifully, soaring above the soulful accompaniment by the orchestra. However, just like the opening movement, the allegro energico third movement was neither energetic nor lively, partly due to the slower tempo selected. This turned out for good in the end, which afforded Zhou slightly more time when a peg from her violin came loose. She handled the situation expertly, not buckling under the pressure but tuned her violin quickly, entering at the next solo without missing a beat.

 

Perhaps it was an excellent idea to place the violas on the outer right side of the stage, opposite the first violins. What looked like a strange decision before only became clear when the interwoven tapestry of melodies could be heard clearly in the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. In much contrast to the orchestral accompaniment earlier, the orchestra delivered it excellently; their sound was focused and they played with precision and flawless intonation, from the winds’ opening unison passages in the first movement to the romping scherzo of the third movement and the finale. In the scherzo the orchestra took flight, playing with a fast tempo but in control, switching between the alternating faster and slower sections. They were even faster in the rustic finale, but with Tan’s clear strokes, the ACO brought out the essence of Beethoven’s compositional style: wit, form, economy and emotion. By the end of it all, the energy high and thrill one felt was not dissimilar to the feeling of having sat through a blockbuster action movie.

 

With this concert, and the Quinnuance concert a few evenings before it, Tan has carved for himself a niche where new music can coexist happily with the familiar and appeal to audiences from all walks of life.

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