NUS Harmonica Orchestra
16th March 2012
University Cultural Centre Hall, Singapore
A Review By HAWK LIU
I didn’t know what to expect at a harmonica orchestra concert. When I entered the hall, I noticed there were MANY chairs on stage! There must have had been almost a hundred performers on stage at full force – lots of harmonicas, some woodwinds and brass, a cello, guitarists, a doublebass, percussion, a harp, a piano and a 20 strong NUS choir (female).
The opening piece, voices of spring by Johann Strauss was refreshing – full of life and gusto. I was always amused by the playing of the large harmonicas. I didn’t know too much about harmonicas (though strangely, it was the only instrument I could play by ear as a child). What I saw other than the small chromatic (I presumed) ones, there was the long one which looked like a long heavy ruler where the players seemed to be picking pieces of food off different parts of it. The other one I noticed looked much like a huge Subway sandwich and the players looked like they were taking part in an eating contest! Sorry for the digression. 3 small groups pieces followed. The one I enjoyed the most was the Twelfth Street Rag where the ‘heavy ruler’ harmonica and the ‘Subway sandwich’ harmonica were featured and they were delicious… I mean delightful! It’s a very good choice as it showed what these instruments, rarely playing solos, could do.
I am a Thousand Wind, with soloist Lai Mun Guan, and a piano, was wonderfully played. He demonstrated a range of skills that could be executed on the instrument – single voicing, harmony voicings, vibrato and such – totally enjoyable. The full ensemble followed with a popular Japanese TV theme song performed by soloist Tan Aik Hong, who gave, in my opinion, an understated performance. But I suspect that that was because the orchestra was playing way too loud for the soloist and the bass drum was the most resonant instrument on stage too. The percussion section, in general, could tone down a bit.
The 2nd half of the concert began with what I really came to the concert for – a suite of set pieces from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The overture ran into a few problems – the motive was a little sluggish, with the players trying to keep up. Timing was lost here and there. I also think the piano shouldn’t be doubling any of the other sections because it seems to fill the role of a prompter and I would rather hear the harmonicas on their own. After all, this was a harmonica orchestra – and why are some of the important motives given to the woodwinds?
Butterfly’s entrance aria, solo sung by Joyce Khoo, had a very interesting sound design. Though not what I would have preferred, it did work – the soloist’s microphone was high on the reverb, the NUS female choir was accompanying Butterfly’s solo, the full orchestra was going – the overall effect was like a well reverbed film soundtrack. It was great for the general listener but for vocal junkies like me, I was not hearing the voice’s natural quality. Well, you can’t please everyone I guess. The love duet sans singers followed and it was another strange experience: I realized the orchestra was probably playing the Puccini score without any instruments being assigned to the 2 soloists’ singing parts; the effect was like they were playing a minus one version of the duet! I would like to repeat the bass drum was too resonant again! It should not have been miked or it should have even been muted.
Un bel di was taken by soloist Joyce Khoo again and this time the reverb had gone down a notch – just one notch. Nonetheless, Joyce Khoo gave a convincing reading of the aria, as well as the entrance aria earlier on. The humming chorus was beautifully performed by the choir. However, I must say the tempo was more than a tat too quick. Much too happy for my liking, it didn’t reflect the sadness and tragedy that was to come later in the opera.
The Carmen Fastasy, played expertly by Japanese harmonica master Yasuo Watani, was a total delight. As played by the harmonica, it sounded like a variation of the violin version because many ornaments were different. I believed every note on the instrument was used, from top to bottom. The gypsy dance was frenzied and fast and no one missed a beat. At times, he used the instrument so well, it sounded like a mini orchestra on its own! I would like to make special mention of the accompanist, Josephine Koh, who made a quick change from the coat and tails of a conductor in the Butterfly suite, into an elegant gown and walked calmly onto the stage to play the piano. And she played it well!
The last piece was America from West Side Story. It wasn’t quite the usually arrangement we hear in the actual musical for most parts: there were a different set of chords used that gave it a different feel. The use of different tempi changed the style completely too. The percussions could tone down a bit.
The rendering of the humming chorus, this time with the choir standing in the midst of the audience gave a nice touch as an encore to a wonderful evening.