Saturday, January 8, 2011

Concert Review: OMM Goes to the Movies

Orchestra of the Music Makers with Victoria Chorale
Conducted by Chan Tze Law
8/1/11, Esplanade Concert Hall

Written by Jedd Jong

                Little needs to be said about the symbiosis between movies and music. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t immediately think of the ominous two-note alternating pattern when looking at a shark in an aquarium, or who doesn’t associate cowboys with Morricone’s famous howling ocarina motif. Movies had music before they even had dialogue.

                I was very excited to read in the newspapers that there would be a concert devoted to movie music. The Esplanade Concert Hall is arguably the best venue in the country for orchestral music, and the impressive line-up of pieces needed not only a good hall, but an orchestra that could do the famous music justice.

                The Orchestra of Music Makers (OMM), formed in 2008 and consisting of both professional and volunteer musicians and mostly young adults, delivered good music without the hubris, and brought laudable technical competence and genuine passion to the proceedings. The orchestra tackled well-known silver screen soundtracks with a fine blend of fearlessness and respect, displaying earnestness and enthusiasm without the naïveté.

                Things got off to a slightly shaky start with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” from Saving Private Ryan, due to an uncertain trumpet solo. However, the “End Credits from Star Trek: First Contact” certainly set the mood for the rest of the evening. Rousing, majestic and sensitive, Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme was given grand treatment by the Music Makers, the string section demonstrating a marvellous aptitude that they would consistently provide for the rest of the concert.

                The “Choral Suite” from Ben-Hur, by Miklós Rózsa is about as sweeping and epic as film scores from the golden age of Hollywood cinema get, but the orchestra was not stymied. The sound was all-encompassing and it truly was an experience to listen to a live orchestra play the music of Ben-Hur. This was followed by Korngold’s “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35”. Violin soloist Edward Tan was precise and passionate, showing that he knew his instrument, he knew the music and he knew the orchestra. His entrances were perfectly-timed, and at the end of his spot-on solo he appeared genuinely grateful to the orchestra, almost shy and even a tad overwhelmed.

                After the intermission was the “Suite from Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace”, the first of four John Williams selections that evening. The first movement, “Main Title”, was rousing, majestic and synchronised, the orchestra resonating with strong brilliance. Everyone thinks they know Star Wars, and many a high school band or orchestra has mercilessly butchered the famous music. However, the OMM captured easily-overlooked nuances with keen detail and panache.  

“The Flag Parade”, the second part of the first movement, was deliberately meant to recall the “Parade of the Charioteers” from the Ben-Hur suite – a clever bit of concert programming. The stirring innocence of “Anakin’s theme” was readily conveyed, and the orchestra showed that they were conscious of the intended ominous foreshadowing of the Imperial March. The Victoria Chorale thrilled with the opening strains of the chorus-and-orchestra “Duel of the Fates”. The horns displayed significant signs of weakness though – one player always seemed a tad slower to the punchline than the rest. The orchestra seemed briefly overwhelmed by the sustained tension of the piece, but gamely fought their way through.

               Mahler’s “Adagietto from Symphony No. 5”, as used in Death in Venice, was a contemplative piece that provided brilliant contrast to the fast-paced and aggressive “Duel of the Fates”. The orchestra, particularly the string section once again, displayed magnificent restraint and pathos, the Adagietto calm and sorrowful all at once.

                With “The Suite from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, the orchestra was well aware of how hard it would have to work to live up to the expectations of many who had grown up listening to the haunting themes by John Williams. The celesta opening was soft and spellbinding. The strings swirled and unfurled, but the horns briefly exposed their vulnerability again. The strings never drowned themselves and the sequence of leitmotifs where one section hands off to the next was timed brilliantly.

                Conductor Chan Tze Law seemed as much a mentor and coach as a conductor, and brought out the best of the orchestra. The best demonstration of his abilities was the “Nimbus 2000” movement of the Harry Potter suite, meant to evoke the feeling of flying on a broomstick.  Chan isolated the woodwinds section and guided them alone through the piece;as they displayed musical dexterity of a remarkable degree.

                Everyone fell back in place naturally for the last movement, “Harry’s Wondrous World”, exuding apt warmth and brightness. The orchestra delivered splashes of fresh colour at all the appropriate moments in the score, in sweeping synchrony, the musicians all acutely aware of each other. The orchestra at full force is ordered in its spectacle, and nobody gets lost.

                Once again, the strings guided the way in “Flight to Neverland” from Hook, also by Williams. They glided through the piece with a sense of conscious effortlessness, and this was one of many, many moments that evening where the orchestra showed they not only knew how the music should sound, but also how it should make the listener feel too. “Flight” was grandiose but never silly, capturing the childlike wonderment intended by the composer very well. A small nit to pick though, is that the piece sounded too similar to the Harry Potter suite that just preceded it.

                “Dry Your Tears Afrika”, from Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad and once again composed by John Williams, featured exuberant vocals that retained a tinge of solemnity from the Victoria Chorale. The full orchestra almost drowns out the vocals, but it’s never too bad, and the choir demonstrates that it is a fine complement to the orchestra, like a wine pairing to the OMM’s main course. The last “A-fri-ka” was a rush of triumph, expertly cushioned by the orchestra.

                The last piece on the program was “The Lion King Suite”, by Hans Zimmer and Elton John. It was familiar and comforting, its ethnic element never feeling too foreign or out of place. “Circle of a Life” had a “We are the World”-type vibe that never got too cheesy. However, when the choir had to sing English-language movie-musical lyrics, they tripped up a tad as the orchestra kept running, occasionally glancing behind.

                “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” was suitably bouncy, but “Hakuna Matata” had a laid-back, big-band vibe that was an odd bedfellow for the strings. The villain song “Be Prepared” suffered from the lack of clarity of the lyrics being sung, but the effect of the trumpet backbone was quite special.

Vocally, the love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was the best-handled. However, the drumbeat felt a little cheap, and barged in on the strings and glockenspiel. Unfortunately, the sparkly pop-synth vibe of the Disney movie’s soundtrack was the orchestra’s greatest enemy that evening. The intrusive drum kit rhythm and electric guitar threatened to spoil the fun of the orchestral brightness and triumph of “King of Pride Rock”.

The OMM was greeted with uproarious applause, and Chan Tze Law and the orchestra tossed the audience a bone with an encore.  John Williams’ “The Imperial March”, the ominous and famous theme of Darth Vader and the Empire in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was understandably rushed, but as forceful and ominous as it should sound. The woodwinds and strings played well with the brass and percussion – the former meek schoolchildren, the latter mean playground bullies; an easily-overlooked dynamic of the piece. Once again, the horns blustered, but this was still far better than the Elton John.

The audience was excited and restless after the Imperial March, as Chan and his Music Makers soothed them into the night with a very different John Williams composition, “Can You Read My Mind?”, the love theme from Superman. The oboe solo was sublime, and the pizzicato appropriately cute. The OMM sure turned the charm on to full with this romantic lullaby of a farewell, unaffected by a small off-key moment on the part of the solo flutist.

As a final, final encore, the orchestra, perhaps now a little listless, gave “Duel of the Fates” a re-do, and it was pretty much as good as the first go-round.

I enjoyed myself immensely. It was a wonderful feeling to be in the presence of musicians who were playing the music that they wanted to play, and who were chomping at the bit to do justice to these popular pieces. They made good music that went down easy, and it was wonderful to see a smattering of big grins on the faces of some of the musicians as they burst into the opening fanfare of the Star Wars suite. The young orchestra seemed to have gelled very well, made music and dreamed dreams.

As Darth Vader would put it, “impressive, most impressive”.


  1. Hi Jedd,

    Thanks a lot for your review! I have put it up on OMM's facebook page:!/pages/Orchestra-of-the-Music-Makers/56559847817

    Guan Wei
    President, OMM

  2. Many thanks Guan Wei! Please continue making great music!

  3. wow that's one impressive concert review! now i regret not going to watch it TT

  4. Thank you Zhuo Dan! Did I use the correct terminology? I'm sorry you couldn't make it, don't worry about it!


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