Monday, 18 January 2010

SSO 31st Anniversary Concert / Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (15 January 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 January 2010.

Has it been 31 years? It seemed not too long ago when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra turned 21. Then the public was divided about its new and youthful Music Director Lan Shui, some thrilled by his charisma and dynamism while others shocked by his super-fast speeds and seeming glossing over of details.

Today, there can be no doubt about the SSO and Shui’s prowess, as this concert amply proved. One major advance has been the quality of brass and woodwinds, none better illustrated in Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Principal hornist Han Chang Chou’s whooping portrayal of the likeable rogue of German folklore could not have been better characterised.

Such audacity in its raucousness was matched by newcomer Li Xin’s pleading clarinet. This slick and well-oiled performance, surmounting a plethora of quixotic changes in dynamics and pacing, all made Till a sympathetic figure, one who would have a last laugh even after his execution.

Singaporean soloists always take centrestage in anniversary concerts, and it was the turn of T’ang Quartet (left), Singapore’s hip chamber outfit. Despite a change in personnel, with Oh Han Ling replacing Lionel Tan on viola, the foursome remains a cohesive and attitudinous force. Their contribution was only the second Asian performance of American Benjamin Lees’ Concerto For String Quartet & Orchestra (1964).

Written in an approachable neoclassical style that recalled Stravinsky, the concerto provided scope for ensemble and solo virtuosity. Bounding energy in outer movements contrasted with a lament-like slow movement that called for individual voices to be solidly projected. That these could have come through with greater incisiveness and volume was the only cavil to a largely enjoyable performance.

No reservations need apply to Sibelius’ Second Symphony in D major, conducted from memory by Shui (left). The opening measures were unusually broad, and the horn chorale radiated genuine warmth and largesse, putting paid to the notion that the Finn was all glacier and tundra. Rhythmic frigidity was never on the cards, with a malleability of tempos that stretched each idea and climax to almost unsupportable ends.

The slow movement demonstrated that not only was that possible, but also convincingly delivered. The restless 3rd movement’s subterranean struggle (marked Vivacissimo) rumbled and than bubbled over into the majestic finale which blazed with volcanic force. The nail-biting lead-up to the final gut-wrenching Tchaikovskian statement was quintessential Shui. He and his magnificent band, the SSO, are true masters of musical suspense.

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