MAGICAL MOVIE MUSIC / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Republic Cultural Centre
Saturday (15 September 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2012 with the title of "A night of movie music magic".

It might seem odd for conservatory students to perform music from the silver screen but this is a reality of the times. Film music is as close as contemporary music gets to be performed as regularly as the great classics. And most of these young musicians will be playing popular and commercial movie music professionally as soon as they graduate.

So let us not get too snobbish about film music, as much of it is more intelligible and superior than what passes as new music today. This pleasurable two-hour concert at Republic Polytechnic’s acoustically superb concert hall was conducted by Jason Lai, who was not only a most personable presenter but a committed film buff as well. He spoke at length about each of the choices performed, and his enthusiasm was genuine and infectious.

Classics that were appropriated by Hollywood as well as specially-composed film scores were included, beginning with the first two minutes of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, that unforgettable depiction of sunrise used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This 1150-seat auditorium was made for this kind of music, where the brass is resplendent and strings sumptuous.

Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso then brought out the tender, bittersweet textures from piano and string quartet, and later a larger body of strings, the perfect expression of nostalgia. From another Italian, Pietro Mascagni’s timeless Intermezzofrom the opera Cavalleria Rusticanatugged on heart-strings, made all the more vivid by Lai’s musing about Robert de Niro’s method acting in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Glamourous violinist Qian Zhou made a cameo appearance, polishing off the quasi-Jewish lament from Schindler’s List by John Williams. Her tone was luscious as always, even with the great familiarity of its melody, but how many people have actually watched the 1994 Oscar winning movie? For many years, the Steven Spielberg movie was not made available for rental here.

One could sense that the audience belonged to a certain younger demographic by the way they responded to certain pieces more than others. Although many appreciated Tara’s Theme from Max Steiner’s score for Gone With The Wind, they only got truly excited after hearing Klaus Badelt’s music for Pirates Of The Caribbean. The tricky jig-like rhythms and high octane propulsive drive was negotiated with enviable ease by the orchestra, fully living up to the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl on the high seas.

The fantasy music of John Williams also drew the loudest cheers, from the tintinnabulation of the celesta from Harry Potter & The Sorceror’s Stone to the brazen brass of the Star Wars franchise. The multifarious influences of classical composers were all there to admire, from Wagner, Holst, Korngold to Walton. The saying that “While good composers borrow, great composers steal” strikes the nail on the head for film music.

For the record, the applause was so loud and prolonged that the entire Star Wars Main Title was encored. It was just as good hearing the second time around.