In The Presence of Greatness

Julia-HwangThe Milverton Concert Society has built up an enviable record of presenting the finest available in terms of musical performers and performances.  Usually these come from established artistes, and we are very fortunate that the Society has a wonderful knack of attracting ‘star’ performers for our delight.  Last Friday however we were entertained by a selection of musicians who are just starting out on their careers (some at a VERY early stage!) but the result was still one of excellence and enjoyment.

We are indeed fortunate that there are dedicated and enthusiastic teachers out there, who willingly give of their time and communicate their love of music and performance to their charges.  I confess I had never heard of ‘The Little Blue Weasels’ until this evening, but now I’m glad I have.  Over a dozen strong, these wonderful children, under the direction of Lisa Tustian and John Young, wowed us with confident, accomplished and funny renditions of two musical classics (well, they are now) ‘One Meat Ball’ and ‘Ocean Commotion’.  The latter, with appropriate depictions of the rolling sea and one of its more frightening denizens, gave us a totally different view of the shark, and made us feel almost sorry for ‘Jaws’ and his kin.  Musically the Blue Weasels were spot on both rhythmically and in pitch and were a real credit to their mentors.  The evening started with ‘Blow Weasel’, a quartet of wind players who are in fact Lisa’s four talented sons – after a fanfare (composed by Lisa) we heard very creditable performances of Faure’s ‘Pavane’ and the jaunty ‘Wallace and Gromit’ theme – well played.

Nat Jenkins, a piano pupil of John Young, then played a Bach prelude, Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ theme and two pieces by contemporary composers – he was obviously rather nervous, but he coped admirably with the demands of the music and public performance.

The Taunton Young Musician competition has revealed some truly magnificent local talent and two of its stars were on display this evening.  Oliver Kelham has a truly lovely tenor voice, with a wonderful ability to ‘float’ the beginnings of his musical phrases.  His singing of ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Ev’ry Valley’ from ‘Messiah’ was accomplished and confident, and full of musicality and his own joy in music making.  His articulation of the words was exemplary as was his breath control.  Two songs by Roger Quilter showed us that Oliver promises to be a great interpreter of the English song repertoire – his fine control of dynamics and his expression of the emotions in the songs, show that he already has a musical maturity well beyond his physical years.

The world of opera should also be open to him  – his performance of Donizetti’s ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ captured the heartfelt hopelessness of the love-stricken Nemorino and was  a fine end to his session.  Yes, there were a couple of noticeable pitch lapses, in the Handel and the Donizetti, but they did not detract from a spell-binding performance.  (He will be singing Alfredo in Somerset Opera’s July presentation of ‘Die Fledermaus’ – well worth an outing).

Weng Soong Tee won the 2012 Taunton Young Musician contest and it’s easy to see why.  The musical world is revelling in an upsurge of brilliantly talented young musicians from the Far East, and this young man is a worthy member of that wave.

The maestoso opening of Rachmaninov’s G Minor Prelude was masterly – precise, brilliant and heroic.  His posture at the keyboard was erect, almost military and evoked the wonderful control of the rhythms and the dynamics which he was displaying.  The varying tone colour (inherent in so much of Rachmaninov) was fully exploited in this performance and I loved every note.

A more contrasting piece than Ravel’s 1901 ‘Jeux D’Eau’ would be hard to imagine, full of musical impressionism and wild leaps of rhythm and harmony.  Ravel headed the score with a quote from Henri de Régnier ‘This is the River God laughing as the water tickles him . . .’

The music, like water, is full of caprice, and Weng’s performance matched its moods to the full.  Sometimes limpid, sometimes playful, we heard cascades, thundering surf, fountains, trickling streams with not a single splashed note from the pianist (sorry for that!)  This was a fully professional and masterly pianist at work and it was privilege to hear him.

‘Follow that’ I muttered to myself, and by golly the 17-year old final performer of the evening did just that, and in spades.  In 2012 Julia Hwang reached the string final of the BBC Young Musician competition, having previously won 6 varied competitions since 2006.  She is preparing for her A-level exams and studies violin with Professor Itzhak Rashkovsky at the RCM in London.

She opened with an impassioned performance of Beethoven’s 1803 Violin Sonata No. 8 in G (dedicated to Tsar Nicholas of Russia).  Her articulation was impeccable – the double-stopping in the lyrical second movement was superb.  I’ve heard many professional performers produce what can only be described as ‘harmonic compromises’ when they double-stop, but Julia’s intonation was faultless.  The ‘perpetuum mobile’ last movement was full of joy and lightness, and she deserved her prolonged applause.

Next we heard Rachmaninov’s 1894 Romance in F minor, one of his ‘Morceaux de Salon’ and Julia exploited the totally Russian romantic lushness of the piece to perfection – again, fantastic double-stopping and a gloriously impassioned performance.

When she announced that her final piece would be Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’ my jaw dropped – this has to be one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces in the entire violin solo repertoire.  The aforesaid inferior maxillary bone almost hit the floor during her performance – until Friday night my favourite performance of this piece was on a CD by the incomparable Anne-Sophie Mutter.  Not any more – Julia’s playing was the best I have ever heard, the wickedly difficult arco/pizzicato arpeggios tossed off with supreme ease.  Vibrato on the harmonics?  Virtually nobody can do that properly, but Julia did, and they were bang in tune too.

This was an evening of the finest music making – a member of the audience, a lady whose knowledge and appreciation of music has my highest regard, said that she felt she ‘was in the presence of greatness’.  I couldn’t agree more, and not just from the solo performers.  Oliver and Julia benefitted hugely from the support of very fine accompaniment – Pam Collins played for Oliver with style, precision and true musicality.  James Drinkwater’s contribution to Julia’s playing was of the highest order – here is a musician to treasure, a true partner at the highest level of musicianship.

I left the concert with my mind in a whirl – I was drained and elated at the same time.  Yes, greatness was present, and I thank the Milverton Concert Society most profoundly.
Review by Harold W. Mead