Monday, 11 May 2009

SSO Concert: The Stuff of Legends / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (8 May 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 May 2009.

It seems like posterity and the passage of time has dictated that local composer Leong Yoon Pin’s Dayong Sampan Overture becomes the iconic Singaporean classical work of our age. It is also the only local work (barring Ho Chee Kong’s Symphony commissioned by Keppel Corporation) to feature in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 30th anniversary season.

Its popularity lies in the quotation of the Malay song Dayong Sampan, a melody that has traveled long and far, finding its way into the households and hearts of many mainland Chinese. Leong’s genius (left) was to skillfully weave it into a collage of counterpoint in this likeable symphonic poem. The SSO recorded it in 1989, and one can only venture that the present cohort takes it several notches further. In concert, the work sounds slicker, coming off with more lustre.

The other Asian piece on the card was China-born Chen Qigang’s Wu Xing (The Five Elements). Its five 2-minute movements represent water, wood, fire, earth and metal in that order. While it is impossible to reduce these universal icons into programme music, each movement suggests a separate state of being in its pointillist orchestration.

The sound alternates between warmth and iciness, familiarity and obscurity, and a whole gamut of responses in between. This is music that is initially elusive, but judging by the warm response that greeted this almost persuasive performance, will repay further listening.

The celebrated Chinese cellist Wang Jian (left) took centrestage in Shostakovich’s ironic and witty Cello Concerto No.1. Putting it plainly, he owns the piece. Seldom has technical mastery been so keenly allied with an intuitive sense into its deep and dark secrets. The slow movement, in particular, moved with such poignancy and pathos as to expose the composer’s true intentions. Despite the outward jocularity, also displayed in abundance by the excellent French hornist Jamie Hersch, this work lays bare the tragedy that was Soviet Russia.

Altogether lighter was Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, although its subject of ill-fated lovers being tormented in Dante’s inferno was not for the faint-hearted. The Russian’s melodramatic music, aided by Ma Yue’s frothy clarinet solo made for a sumptuous treat. As one might expect from Music Director Shui who loves to extract every drop of juice from hyper-emotional climaxes, it was hair-raising stuff to close the evening. When tragedies can bring on the smiles, the power of music is triumphant.

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