Monday, 9 March 2009

SSO Concert: Mad About Tchaikovsky / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
DARRELL ANG, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (7 March 2009)

This review was first published in The Straits Times on 9 March 2009.

The music of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) can often be tainted with a familiarity that breeds contempt. No fear about SSO’s latest Tchaikovsky bash, which presented almost revisionist accounts of popular warhorses. The Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko (below) is one of those artists who is not a stickler for well-worn tradition, instead one who chooses to surprise and confound pre-conceived ideas about music we know and love.

His view of Tchaikovsky’s indestructible First Piano Concerto was unusually expansive, emphasizing the maestoso (majestic) aspects of its broad introductory pages, instead of rushing headlong into thickets of virtuosic excess. This only served to heighten the gripping drama that ensued when those barnstorming moments finally arrived. His octave technique is stunning and amazingly accurate, well worthy of those comparisons with a certain Horowitz.

Even in the prestissimo interlude of the serene slow movement, the sheer ease of his delivery seemed scarcely believable for someone of his hulking physical stature. The Cossack-inspired finale opened with restraint, but closed with all cannons blazing. Demidenko’s encore was also uncharacteristic: a ruminative and rarely-heard Chopin Mazurka (in A minor, a Emile Gaillard).

Through all this, the orchestra exercised much flexibility and latitude under young Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang, which exuded of a genuine give-and-take partnership. Horowitz was not as lucky on his American debut.

Ang (left) was an eleventh hour substitute for the indisposed Chinese conductor Yu Long, and there was an audible gasp when the announcement was made. Any hint of reservation was immediately dispelled with the fine degree of control marshaled by Ang in the slow introduction of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. This soon unfolded into an epic vision that will not be easily forgotten.

The Russia- and American-trained maestro is blest with the abilities of pacing the music, knowing when to hold back and when to push forward, ratcheting the climaxes to seemingly unsupportable highs. And it was more of the same with the slow movement, showcasing Han Chang Zhou’s excellent French horn solo, and the valedictory finale.

To say that Ang grabbed both horns of the bull, like a young Leonard Bernstein in 1943 (he subbed for an ailing Bruno Walter), would be an understatement, and the chorus of bravos that greeted the magnificent performance was well earned. A star is born.

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