Tuesday, 24 February 2009

SSO Concert: Beloved Places / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
OKKO KAMU, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (20 February 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 February 2009.

One could be forgiven for imagining the first half of SSO’s latest concert to be a continuation of last weekend’s Valentine’s Day musical celebration. Filled with sentimental Russian bonbons, it began with Rachmaninov’s orchestral Vocalise. The orchestra could have milked it for all its worth, but was well-reined throughout with the violins shaping a beautiful line and the ensemble rising to a passionate climax.

The requisite schmaltz was provided by SSO concertmaster Alexander Souptel (left) in the violin solo of Tchaikovsky’s 3-movement suite Souvenir Of A Beloved Place (Souvenir d'un lieu cher), orchestrated by Glazunov. Souptel’s easy-going and avuncular style belies an artist of utmost conviction and sincerity. His sweet but not overly effusive tone served the music well; Meditation – the rejected slow movement from the famous Violin Concerto – relived nostalgia heart-on-sleeve, contrasted with the perpetual motion of the Scherzo and tear-jerking Melodie.

Wiping sweat from his brow and acknowledging applause between pieces, “Sasha” (as he is known to practically everybody) cut a familiar figure of much likeability. The Entracte from the Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Ballet similarly played to his strengths but it was the unscripted encore that drew most cheers.

Skipping offstage and returning in a Cossack top, he ripped through the Russian Dance (complete with fearsome cadenza) from Swan Lake like a man possessed. As if drawing audacity from some imaginary vat of vodka, here was the shining singular result of how the fall of the Soviet Union has ultimately benefited Singapore.

The SSO then expertly switched mode to ponder the dark morbid sphere of Shostakovich (left). His First Symphony is an astonishing effort from a teenager, possessing nearly all the hallmarks of the haunted, irony-driven adult composer. Conductor Okko Kamu took an epic view of the work, delivering its urgent message with broad strokes, while downplaying the temptation for caricature.

There were many moments for solo musicians to shine, notably from the clarinet, bassoon, oboe, piano, timpani, cello and violin (with Lynnette Seah taking over Souptel’s traditional role). Their individual moments vividly added to the multifarious human comedy that shaped the multi-layered enigma that was Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

As for the evening’s offerings, the audience could also be forgiven for thinking that Esplanade Concert Hall had been transformed –for nearly two hours - into the Bolshoi Zaal of Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

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