October 2, 2015

War and Peace: Singapore International Festival of Music


The inaugural Singapore International Festival of Music, brainchild of conductor Darrell Ang and violinist Loh Jun Hong, opened last Saturday with a concert themed after the festival theme ‘War and Peace’. Comprising mostly luminaries in the classical scene, musicians, composers, and patrons of the arts, the half-filled Chamber had good acoustics for a chamber concert (pardon the pun). As history was made in that room before (the Chamber used to be the place where parliament sessions took place), history was being made the very evening with the festival.
Lee Chor Lin, CEO of the Arts House, spoke in the opening address of her recent trip to Berlin and about how the city remembers history by naming roads and building monuments; she then likened it to how SIFOM sets out to remember our history with a music festival – because music gives hope in despair and a way out of desperation. Festival co-director Darrell Ang then made an appearance, speaking about the need for Singapore to have her own international music festival that would put Singapore on the world map of musical cities; after all Singapore has a huge talent pool of capable musicians who have been trained both locally and overseas.

The opening work featured festival co-director Loh Jun Hong as soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5. The three works on the programme were tied together by the theme of historical wars, and the Mozart was featured because of the ‘Turkish’ section in the third movement where Mozart parodied the invasion of the loud, bawdy Turks. Loh was stellar as always, collected and confident, with his quicksilver sound. The gentleness of the adagio gave way to the amiable rondo third movement. Loh plunged into the swaggering, stomping Turkish section with aplomb, his instinctive mastery of the bow was evident from the way he switched between the sections.

Perhaps it was because the musicians were standing while the two speeches were being made, or because the orchestra was recently-assembled that they were slightly askew in accompanying Loh. The horns, in particular, did not blend well with the rest of the ensemble. A classical work is a litmus test of any chamber orchestra, and one can tell the chemistry of an ensemble by observing the way they interact with each other and the conductor. As much as all of the musicians were handpicked to form the ensemble, they were more intent on following the conductor than interacting and listening to each other.

However, conductor Marlon Chen held the ensemble together well, and they gave sparkling performances of Britten’s Sinfonietta and Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The ensemble opted for the 1932 version of the Sinfonietta – smaller, one instrument per part set-up – which worked well to their advantage. Britten’s picturesque scoring was brought to life in its minute detail; the instruments dovetailing subtly into one another. Especially memorable were the duet for two violins in the Variations, and the impressive restraint in the build-up to the Tarantella that did not overrun into uncontrollable frenzy.

Even in the Stravinsky, the ensemble gave a detailed account of the neo-classical work, always ensuring that there was clarity, but not to the point of being pedantic or prescriptive. Chen knew the score inside out, and the musicians responded right on cue. What he didn’t know that well, however, was the history and context of the music. As much as the committee tried to make the concert informal by having Chen introduce the pieces, his short introductions sounded rehearsed and almost forced.

Nevertheless, it was a good start to what looks like an exciting festival ahead. Happening tonight is the music of Vienna written in years of intervening peace but with impending war looming in the background. Featuring popular works like Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, Beethoven’s Twelve Variations for Cello & Piano in G major on Handel’s
“See, the Conqu’ring Hero comes,” and Schubert’s Trout Quintet, be sure not to miss this one! 7.30pm, Chamber @ The Arts House.

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