Monday, 2 March 2009

SSO Concert: Fantasies and Confessions / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
LIM YAU, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (28 February 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 March 2009.

Drawing up concert programmes is a fine art. Just ask SSO Resident Conductor Lim Yau, who is a master at juxtaposing the familiar and the arcane, with often unexpected and euphonious success. His most concert paired up the British Isles with Russia, while moving from the sacred to the profane.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis showcased sumptuous strings, arranged in three blocs like soloists, semi-chorus and choirs in a cathedral. It generated an overwhelmingly lush and effulgent sound, one that enveloped the hall like some incense-laden mist – just the right setting for quiet devotion.

Any hope for reverie was sharply interrupted by Shostakovich’s madcap First Piano Concerto, lightly scored for strings and a major obbligato trumpet part. Here the Scottish tandem of pianist Steven Osborne (left) and SSO Principal Trumpeter Laurence Gargan played the part of twin comedians, who largely baited Beethoven and the classical form.

Osborne’s obvious virtuosity seemed like an understated one, swinging between mock placidity and derisive eruptions on the piano while maintaining a poker-faced fa├žade throughout. This is a very valid look at the music, although one might crave a little for Argerich’s in-your-face kind of psychosis. Gargan (left) lapped up his moments gratefully, sounding as exuberant as usual.

It was a stroke of programming genius that followed Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain (the Rimsky-Korsakov version) with the Singapore premiere of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s The Confession Of Isabel Gowdie, both works inspired by visions of the witches’ Sabbath and things that go bump in the night. The latter was first introduced in the 1990 BBC Proms and made the composer’s name (left) for good.

Opening with restrained brass and wind choirs, the gradual introduction of strings in the expansive unfolding narrative mirrored the earlier Vaughan Williams. Its descent to dark and ominous regions, with loud pulsating kinetic energy and fantastical imagery, was an exhilarating journey that approached the crushing impact of a first hearing of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring.

The sheer immediacy of the performance reaffirms the orchestra’s ability to learn and assimilate new music with ease. The final cathartic yell, a deafening crescendo followed by total silence was no less memorable.

After that stiff shot of whiskey, the sweetener of an encore – Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Greensleeves – seemed like an anti-climax. At least some people had to go home happy.

Footnote: Steven Osborne is married to SSO former Associate Principal clarinettist Jean Johnson (left). They had first met in 2003 when Osborne played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the SSO, and guess who played Russ Gorman's famous opening clarinet solo? Jean was at the concert and recalled that it was 6 years to the day (28 February 2003) that their eyes first met!

1 comment:

Chang Tou Liang said...

Steven Osborne's jazzy encore was a transcription of "Things Aint What They Used To Be", from the recording of Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass.

He had originally wanted to play a Prelude by Rachmaninov, but stuck with jazz instead, according to Jean Johnson. She was pretty happy as Steven had wanted to please her!