Friday, 31 October 2008

Singapore Sun Festival 2008 / Los Angeles Philharmonic: Review

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Saturday (25 October 2008)
Esplanade Concert Hall

This review appeared in The Straits Times on 28 October 2008

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first concert at the Singapore Sun Festival began in a best possible way. The gorgeousness of its lush strings was immediate apparent in the subdued and hushed atmosphere of Sibelius’ Death of Melisande, with each and every member responding as one to the deftest gestures of its out-going Finnish Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Its poignant portrayal of a last gasp of breath before the glowing embers of life ebbed away was awe-inspiring because of its sheer control. And it was with this intimate sound that opened Sibelius’s popular Violin Concerto, which starred the phenomenal Korean-American Sarah Chang (left). Her steely and unerring view of the warhorse combined lyricism and poetry with requisite dexterity, traversing delicate pianissimos to slashing fortissimos, with much colour and texture in between.

The orchestra, no mere accompanists, responded with an almost overpowering vigour; Sibelius was after all one of music’s great symphony writers. The ante was upped in the finale, where Chang went for broke, with all semblance of caution tossed into the Arctic winds. This seeming duel between violin and orchestra added the visceral excitement of walking a tightrope without nets.

The tour de force of the evening was surely the orchestra’s Technicolor vision of Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea), an impressionist view of the English Channel. Anchoring this dynamic, irrepressible life force laid a steady pulse helmed tautly by Salonen, adorned with splashes of aquarelles and polished to a fine sheen. No orchestral details were spared, and each of the solos came through great transparency and immediacy. This music, which bewildered early audiences (and even some today), sounded positively vital, as essential as Bach and Beethoven.

A perfect evening, to this pair of ears, would have rounded up with Ravel’s decadent La Valse. But his rhythmically strait-jacketed Bolero proved to be a crowd-pleaser, its hypnotic chant passing through various hands in an inexorable crescendo before closing with a big bang. It was hard not to applaud this act of non-music (in the composer’s own words), because its stirring effect worked charms.

The two encores further confirmed the orchestra’s virtuosity; more hushed string heaven in Sibelius’ wistful Valse Triste and a mini-blockbuster in Stravinsky’s early gem Fireworks. Orchestral pyrotechnics indeed.

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