Monday, 12 October 2009

SINGAPORE SUN FESTIVAL 2009 Concerts / Review

Singapore Sun Festival
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (7,9 & 10 October 2009)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 12 October 2009.

The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra was the resident orchestra for the 2009 Singapore Sun Festival. Although it did not boast the “brand name” status of the Russian National or Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras of previous years, it fully deserved the accolades for the varied programmes offered.

A lack of pre-conceptions and expectation proved to be a good thing. After all, the vast majority of Wednesday evening’s crowd had come to see and hear the legendary Irish flautist Sir James Galway. In his usual friendly and casual manner, the bespectacled, grey but still hirsute, soon-to-turn-70 superstar thrilled and tantalised in Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto in D major.

His pristine, golden tone remains an object of beauty, and the nimbleness in which he engaged his tricky and witty cadenzas a marvel that turned back the clock. Twenty minutes of aural bliss seemed all too short, but all was placated with two Irish encores, including one of his signature tunes, Londonderry Air or Danny Boy.

There were two further stars for Friday evening. Russian cellist Nina Kotova, worked the Asian premiere of American composer Christopher Theofanidis’ Cello Concerto (dedicated to her), with its Greek-Byzantine dance rhythms, from prayer-like contrition to fever pitch. Fifteen-year-old Chinese American pianist Conrad Tao then put his own unerring personal stamp on Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, a totally impressive Singapore debut that can only be described as the most prodigious individual performance since the first coming of Lang Lang in 1997.

Supporting the fireworks were Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden and his excellent orchestra, hitherto somewhat of an unknown quantity, but had proved their mettle within minutes. Beethoven’s Second Symphony was treated to a lithe but not lightweight reading, one that rejoiced in the glow of youth but engaged in some serious fist shaking, prompted by deafness taking its toll.

Equally impressive were ten numbers from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The orchestra reveled in its potent blend of strident dissonance and fluid lyricism, with the inherent violence of fatal love fully realised.

Still on Russian music, Tchaikovsky’s highly dramatic Fourth Symphony began on low voltage but soon gained momentum as the neuroses piled up. The wind soloists were excellent going into the slow movement’s lament and the central folk dance of the 3rd movement’s pizzicato polka. Then all caution was thrown into the wind that made for an exciting tempestuous finale.

The only Dutch music offered was Johann Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, modeled on the concert overtures of Berlioz but filled with the expressive devices of his better-known namesake Richard Wagner. Braying brass, svelte strings, and a surfeit of melody all made for an enjoyable performance.
The marquee event was surely the all-Italian opera gala evening on Saturday helmed by Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. It was an unmitigated pleasure to finally find an artist at the height of her expressive powers, rather than some over-the-hill diva with unreasonable demands for the air-conditioning to be switched off. Sporting three changes of evening gowns, including a flaming red cleavage-revealing see-through outfit, the irrepressible Gheorghiu oozed charisma and sexuality from every pore.

Whether it was in solo arias or duets with her compatriot, the rising tenor Marius Manea, she commanded the stage with a clear-as-a-bell richness of tone and vivacious presence. The arias from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Un bel di) and Catalani’s Le Wally (Ebben! Ne andro lontana) were perfection itself. Not to be overshadowed, Manea hit his high notes in arias from Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Puccini’s La Boheme like a young and once-fit Pavarotti.

The couple elicited a rare chemistry in four duets, including less familiar gems from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, all sensitively partnered by the orchestra now conducted by the Italian Paolo Olmi. Arguably the best operatic concert in almost two decades (and certainly this century thus far), it was capped with five substantial encores.

Like in Placido Domingo’s 1990 gig at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, the audience was invited to sing the chorus in the Brindisi from Verdi’s La Traviata. The response was less than coordinated clapping and a respectful silence. Judging by the high spirits and inspiration engendered, some souls may be led to take on singing lessons themselves. In the meantime, the operatic offering for next year’s Singapore Sun Festival cannot come soon enough.

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