Monday, 11 January 2010

SSO Concert: The Ecstasy of Inspiration / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (9 January 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 January 2010.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the year was all-Russian, with four works from the first half of the 19th century. The curtain-raiser was the most modern-sounding; Stravinsky’s symphonic poem The Song Of The Nightingale bristled with dissonances. Liberally spiced with pentatonic melodies, this elaborate piece of chinoiserie was also influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s ear for exuberant orchestration.

The solos were particularly lovely; Evgueni Brokmiller’s flute and Alexander Souptel’s violin sumptuously portrayed the nightingale’s song while Laurence Gargan’s mellow trumpet provided a silvery sheen to the quiet ending. This set the stage for American violinist Gil Shaham’s (below) gala appearance in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto in G minor.

The sonority he created in the opening solo, based on a G minor triad, was crystal-clear and awe-inspiring. He is one of those rare soloists who can confidently project through the hall without having to play loud or emphatically. This ease of delivery however culminated in the most delicately shaded of slow movements, which sang mellifluously over an accompaniment of gentle staccatos.

The stops came out for the rhythmically charged finale, and hardly a sweat was broken for the sole encore, more prestidigitation in the Prelude from Bach’s unaccompanied Partita No.3 in E major. True virtuosity is all about saying what you mean without making a meal out of it.

In lieu of a traditional 4-movement symphony, the juxtaposition of tone poems by Rachmaninov and Scriabin (left) was a coup of programming know-how. Contrasts between the two pianist-composers, who were classmates and sometime-rivals, were stark if not disturbingly fascinating.

Rachmaninov’s Isle Of The Dead was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s expressionist painting of the same title. It began as a lugubrious funeral procession through a dark, murky seascape of lapping waves, with motifs from the medieval chant Dies Irae waxing and waning. Music Director Lan Shui steered this vessel expertly, rising to the crest of a climax with characteristic sweep, before subsiding to a terminal repose.

Scriabin’s erotic The Poem of Ecstacy, occasionally referred to as his fourth symphony, was more impressionistic. Its iridescent flight of fancy soon took shape with Gargan’s soaring trumpet escapades, riding wave upon wave of highs. Whether this was a consummation of the creative process or a coital act, as the explicit title suggested, it mattered little. The journey from melancholia to megalomania by the SSO was an exhausting but mostly absorbing one.

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