I had forgotten that audiences could get so small. Certainly, whenever students appear on stage in Singapore, it has become customary for large numbers of their peers to sit in the audience hollering and screaming when they appear and generally supporting them with an enthusiasm which clearly lifts the performer in the most positive way. For some reason (and probably not unconnected with the proximity of exams and assignment deadlines as the semester draws to its close) student audiences have suddenly shrunk and I find myself in a small clique of a dozen or so hardy souls who brave whatever Indonesian forest fires or clashing weather fronts can inflict on us for the sole purpose of experiencing a musical performance and providing the performer with a tangible presence with which to react.
The rot seemed to begin last Thursday when student composer Syafiqah ‘ Adha binte Mohamed Sallehin presented her new work, Rintihan Nadim, as part of her Master’s degree submission. True, it was a performance which was principally directed towards the examiners whose job it was to assess the work rather than the performance, but it was open to the public who, in effect, served to legitimise the performance and provide the composer with a more direct (and, it has to be said, valid) reaction to the music than the focused and specialised considerations of the examiners. It mattered at the time to the composer that the work was good enough to get a degree, but in the broader reality of musical experience, what matters most is how an audience responds. The few hardy souls in the concert hall last Thursday responded well enough; but their numbers were too small to pay full justice to what was, in effect, a very compelling performance of a hugely attractive work.
I have come to like the composer’s style; it has a strange but rather satisfying blend of the innovative, the opulently romantic, the directly expressive and the distinctly Malay. And while I felt that there was a sense of the music being driven too much by the narration rather than relying on its own impact, the story was well illustrated by the highly imaginative instrumental colour and effectively shaped to make a satisfying concert work. The tale of how the young boy Nadim saved Singapore from an attack by fish (specifically garfish - which seems strange since the modern-day habitat of the garfish is essentially around the waters of northern and western Europe and north west Africa – but there again, I suppose Nadim chased them all away from the South China Seas) is a good one for any audience. The narration was delivered with a wonderful clarity by Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohd, and the composer was at hand to ensure that the English translation was visible during the performance for the benefit of the non-Malays speakers. Best of all was the quite outstanding playing of the student ensemble under the conductor Francis Tan Huan Chun. It’s a big responsibility directing, not just a premiere performance but one which is being attended by examiners on whose word the young composer’s immediate future depends, and Tan could not have done a better job. He had a cool and collected command over his seven committed instrumentalists and balanced the texture well, never forgetting to keep a wary eye on the narrator and ensure it all passed along fluently. Whatever anyone else thought of the work, I very much enjoyed it and I have a feeling that the audience did too; all 20 of them (or so).
Last night, despite the presence on stage of 14 student string players, the audience outnumbered them only by about three to one and, surprisingly, the appearance of the students (the women amongst them beautifully garbed in various rich colours and exuding elegance in a way few orchestras do today), did not trigger a single screech, scream or whistle. This was an audience there for the music rather than primarily to support their friends. It was a delightful programme of Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák played with immense enthusiasm and a strength of tone which was most impressive. It often tended to go rather fast – the finale of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik breathless to a quite staggering degree - and this showed in some shaky intonation and a few untidy corners especially in the Serenade for Strings. But the inner balance of the string ensemble was excellent and some of the individual playing (one hates to single anyone out, but Yu Ssu-Yang’s cello and Liu Minglun’s violin warrant mention) was absolutely magnificent. I particularly liked the tightly restrained vibrato which gave the collective tone a very clear and pointed focus. The humour of the last movement of the Bartók Divertimento was particularly well conveyed; did I detect the merest hint of a snigger from a man 20 rows in front – the joke certainly was not lost on either him or me.
The audience just made it into double figures for this lunchtime’s horn and trombone presentation, and the small numbers clearly did nothing for the morale or confidence of the two protagonists, hornist Yeong Sze Fong and trombonist Kow Kang Yue Don, neither of whom quite rose to the occasion as fully as they might. Concertos, No.1 for horn by Richard Strauss and the trombone one by Launy Grøndahl, were played with a thoroughly assured level of technical security, and both players were impressive in their attention to the detail in the score. However, as the Strauss progressed, one felt that Yeong had lost heart and was, to an extent, going through the motions rather than vividly delivering one of the truly great concertos of the 20th century (personally, I was deeply disappointed by the – probably necessary – curtailing of the accompaniment, but that magical transformation from the first to the second movements, perhaps one of the greatest moments in all Strauss, seems too important to omit from a performance merely on grounds of convenience). He produced a clear, ringing tone and embraced the range effortlessly, but this sounded more in the way of a run through for the benefit of a teacher than a distinct interpretation aimed for an attentive audience. And can we blame him when the public were so conspicuous by their absence?
Likewise Kow, who gave a great deal of colour and drama to the Grondhal Concerto, but failed to bring it fully to life. It’s an interesting concerto which uses the trombone to good effect and speaks in a pleasingly direct language to any audience. Kow was obviously well aware of that; he just seemed to doubt that there was sufficient of an audience to open the work up to. There is something infinitely depressing about playing to an empty hall and if ever people doubted how essential an audience is for the totality of a performance, these concerts should have provided a powerful counter-argument.