Monday, 5 April 2010

SSO Concert: From The New World / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
LAN SHUI, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (3 April 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 April 2010.

While busily celebrating the bicentenaries of Chopin and Schumann, it was good that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had not forgotten the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Even better was the fact that his Adagio for Strings was not performed, instead the Singapore premiere of the little known Music for a Scene from Shelley.

That proved to be the subtlest music of the evening, beginning with muted strings and brass. How the orchestra achieved such an even and refined pianissimo was a marvel of control, and cue David Smith’s superb trumpet solo which illuminated like a beacon in a dense fog. Conceived as imaginary incidental music for a drama, this would pass as first class film music today.

Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto was next, and it received a very musical and richly detailed reading from Turkish pianist Hüseyin Sermet. His sense of poetry was close to flawless but tended to overdo the rubato, the art of slowing down a phrase and then catching up later.

Like belacan, a little rubato goes a long way, but too much flexibility resulted in the 1st movement sounding too deliberate and the nocturne-like 2nd movement soporific. Tempos picked up for the finale, which had both lightness and vitality, qualities that a hash of missed notes could not deny. As an encore, Sermet served up a delectable Sonata in D major by Padré Antonio Soler, also liberally laced with rubato.

Fears that the orchestra would go on auto-pilot for Dvorak’s ever-popular Ninth Symphony, or the New World Symphony, were unfounded. Conducting from memory, Music Director Lan Shui carved out a memorable performance not least because he made a hackneyed classic sound fresh.

Aside from the evocative slow introduction, the first movement was driven at a blistering pace. There was however time for niceties, such as Principal flautist Jin Ta’s lovely introduction of the Swing Low, Sweet Chariot theme, and several judiciously nuanced portamenti. Although the brass was not all together for the first note of the Largo, all was forgiven when Elaine Yeo’s cor anglais sang with unblemished beauty.

Whatever programme be drawn from the work, the symphony is all about nostalgia. While Dvorak was feted in distant America, he longed for his homeland in Bohemia. Within this heady mix of Old and New World idioms, the orchestra brought out the true essence of its inspirations. That alone was worth the price of admission.

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