When Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the newly-formed Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1999 included in his programme was Dvořák’s "New World" Symphony; the first time the MPO had ever been scheduled to play the work. After the first rehearsal the Maestro was not pleased, complaining that the players had not practised, that they did not know the work and that they acted like a student orchestra. He may have been simply goading them to up their game or he may genuinely have felt that the orchestra was dolefully unprepared for the performance, but whatever the reason, his comments revealed an awareness of the dangers of complacency in performing a work of such universal popularity. So well known and loved is Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony -"From the New World" - that most who go to hear it have their own ideal performance firmly implanted in their minds (possibly a recording or an assemblage of half-remembered performances) which they use as a yardstick to measure every other performance they hear. For a conductor to make his mark with the Symphony he needs to offer something so clear and compelling that audiences are forced to re-evaluate the piece; and for that to happen, an orchestra must be at the top of its game and not merely sitting back comfortably going over well trodden territory.
This was something which clearly preyed on the minds of the players of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra when they performed the Symphony as part of their end of semester concert on Friday night. Many of them would have been playing the work for the first time, but all of them would have known it as a mainstay of the repertory ever since they first took a liking to orchestral music, and, like the audience, they probably each had an ideal performance in their minds. Consequently an air of nervous tension pervaded much of the playing which manifest itself in occasional split notes from the brass and some uncomfortable wind intonation. But this was a performance which also had some spectacularly good points, not the least of which was some phenomenal playing from the strings.
There is no universally accepted seating plan for orchestras. In Germany, for example, a tradition grew up of placing a screen of violins along the front of the stage through which the rest of the orchestra was filtered, while in England and the US it was common for the strings to spread from top to bottom as the semicircle went from left to right; this became even more universal with the advent of stereophonic recording when, having a spatial aspect between treble and bass emphasised the stereo spread (something north American recording engineers in the 1950s and 1960s took to extremes by creating recordings which sounded as if the first violins and cellos were separated by a chasm as wide as the Atlantic Ocean). There are powerful musical arguments to support all the various permutations of string seating, but Jason Lai was wise on Friday to adopt the latter, not least because it gave the violas a chance to shine brightly over the cellos unencumbered by the screen of violins. Indeed, so clearly and strongly did they project their playing that I realised for the first time just how vital a role Dvořák had given his own instrument in the work.
Lai’s was a compelling yet unpretentious interpretation of the Symphony, wisely avoiding excess of pathos or lingering emotion (alertly snapping off a few chords which seemed in danger through sour intonation) and highlighting the dance elements which flavours so much of Dvořák’s writing. He clearly inspired these players, and even when the pressure got to them, Lai’s infectious enthusiasm for the work and his firm but genial control, ensured a performance which would have been to just about everybody’s taste.
The concert began with the world première of Brastri per Celindano by Peter Edwards. The work may have been written for the Conservatory Orchestra but Edwards made no concessions for the youth and relative inexperience of the players, presenting them with an extremely challenging work which devoted itself to the exploration of orchestral timbre. The title (an amalgam of the instruments involved; Brass, Strings, Percussion, Celesta and Piano) was much more than an ingenious bit of word-play; it effectively summed up what the piece was all about. If it was challenging to the orchestra, it was difficult for the audience, especially at the start when jagged lumps of orchestral sound were hurled at them much in the manner of a gang of youths hurling stones from a bridge on to a highway (a not uncommon practice in less civilised countries than Singapore). But, after a while, these seemingly unrelated lumps of sound began to take form and build to something tangible. In the end, as Edwards put it in his colourful note, “things fall apart as easily as they form”, and the sound became fragmentary again. But by this stage the audience had a better perception of what it was all about, and the very generous (verging on the ecstatic) applause the composer received when he went on to stage to congratulate the musicians was not just well-deserved; it was in genuine appreciation of a stimulating new work.
It is, however, as unfair to judge a new work on its first performance as it is to assess the ability of an orchestra to meet the composer’s demands in it. Suffice it to say that under Lai’s very clear direction – and a direction which not only kept the piece together but moulded it into a vivid artistic interpretation – the orchestra played admirably, showing real commitment and dedication to the task and at times elevating themselves with some very accomplished playing indeed. Perhaps a lack of discipline in the brass gave a slightly distorted feel to the texture (I can’t really believe this was the composer’s intention), but full praise to celesta and piano who together provided a powerfully secure backbone to the whole performance.
Without a shadow of doubt the very best playing in the concert came with the Copland Clarinet Concerto. Whether by accident or design the performance was taking place on the very day that Benny Goodman first played the work in public in 1950 – long before anyone on stage (but not in the audience) had been born. That the Concerto does not get as many outings as it deserves is because Goodman possessed a very special technique which few classically-trained clarinettists have ever fully emulated. Chinese clarinettist Yue Ziqi has that technique in spades, however, and her performance, full of an innate feel for the jazz style, a gorgeously expressive approach to the blues elements and a level of direct virtuosity that was utterly breathtaking, was about as good as it gets. True, one or two of the stratospherically high notes did not quite make it, but who cares? What came across was a brilliant and persuasive interpretation of a Concerto which this young player showed every sign of making her own. Possibly having spent much of the last semester studying in the US helped her get so firmly under the skin of this quintessentially American work, but we must not overlook the fact that before then, she had been a student at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, and there was clearly a powerful empathy between her and the orchestra which responded with some genuinely world-class playing.