Monday, 13 October 2008

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra @ Esplanade: A Review

Esplanade Concert Hall Friday (10 October 2008)
This review appeared on The Straits Times on 12 October 2008

All-English concerts are positively a rarity in Singapore, and it took the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) to redress that imbalance. Daring to omit a concerto, so beloved by local audiences, the RPO under its Principal Guest Conductor Leonard Slatkin courted box-office blues but the results were well worth the risk.

The concert began quietly with two short excerpts from William Walton's music for the Laurence Olivier directed movie Henry V. All ears strained to catch the subtle but warm string glow in the Passacaglia and feather-light caress in Touch Her Soft Lips And Part. The orchestra then launched itself into the barely-contained violence of Ralph Vaughn Williams' Sixth Symphony, a Singaporean premiere.

This has to be the normally pastoral-minded English composer's boldest departure in the form, one that unashamedly displayed rage and regret following the barbarism of World War Two. Low brass brayed with belligerent vehemence, with the sinister second movement taking off where Mars The Bringer Of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets had left.

Within this aural carnage, the ensemble was supple enough to engage in moments of jazzy swagger, with excellent solos from the saxophone and English horn, finding gaiety and poignancy under extreme duress. Then came the precipitous plunge into the abyss of a nuclear winter, envisaged in the mysterious eerie finale, played pianissimo through to its unremittingly bleak end. The relative silence and icy chill drew a litany of coughs from the audience, evidence that this stark and compromising music had cast a seemingly infectious spell.

Doom and gloom of the first half gave way to the reassuring warmth of Pax Britannica, embodied in Edward Elgar's popular Enigma Variations. RPO, fifth of the five big London orchestras to grace Esplanade's stage, could well have rode this warhorse blindfolded. Yet there was no sense of over-familiarity or routine under Slatkin's baton; the maestro also conducted it from memory.

Its Brahmsian harmonies and magisterial sweep, allied with intimate playing from the principals, were enough to win over even the most jaded. The indefatigable Nimrod variation unfolded with measured and stately grace, drawing more than a ripple of premature applause upon its conclusion. Here was a gesture of genuinely felt emotion, rather than ignorance or naivety.

Unfettered applause rained upon its triumphant end, and it was left for Slatkin and RPO to turn that into a standing ovation. The perfect feet good encore: Elgar's First Pomp And Circumstance March. All that was missing were balloons, streamers and fluttering Union Jacks.

No comments: