Monday, 29 March 2010

SSO Gala Concert: Sarah Chang Plays Bruch

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (26 March 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 March 2010.

For Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang’s fifth appearance in Singapore since 2002, fears of satiety by her regular visits were unfounded. Despite higher ticket prices for this Gala Concert, the hall was brimming, with gallery seats packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

Unfortunately, the former prodigy was nowhere near her peak. At best, her performance of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto (composer pictured left)ticked off the boxes with a big gestures and technique; the opening solo was long-held and close to flawless. At worst, she sounded jaded, seemingly going through the motions.

Over-familiarity with this warhorse rendered its little more than blah, so cue a less-than- vociferous audience reaction. Music took second place to Chang’s screaming outfit - cross between tinsel-laden Christmas tree and giant guppy - her onstage gavottes and wide sweeps of the bow. As if having too little to do, she also joined in the orchestra’s tutti passages.

Not all of it was disappointing, as the slow movement had genuine lyricism aided by a purity of tone. This was however marred by a finale fraying at the edges, with a tendency for rushing, as if to finish a tedious job. There was no encore, rare for a gala concert, which was just as well if she was not in the right mood.

The evening was redeemed by the Nordic works, a truer reflection of the concert’s quality. Lemminkainen’s Return, from the Four Legends of the Finnish epic Kalevela by Jean Sibelius, gave the brass a terrific workout, serving more than a warm-up. The tension built up by Music Director Shui Lan’s pacing of the work was also palpable.

Even better was Dane Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, one of the great 20th century symphonies. Over a sinister string ostinato, woodwinds in couples cast a malevolent spell, which came to fatal fruition with Jonathan Fox’s insistent snare drumbeat. A call to battle was Nielsen’s (left) musical vision of war, death and destruction.

Shui expertly kept a tight rein throughout, guiding the juggernaut through minefields of peril, not least the closing movement’s fugue, which began in a jocular manner and turned increasingly malignant. The orchestra last played this in 2003, coinciding with SARS and the Allied invasion of Iraq. While the troops are still bogged down in the Gulf, the orchestra has improved in leaps and bounds. And that is all that matters.

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