Monday, 23 August 2010

SSO Concert: The Familiar and the Fantastic / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 August 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 August 2010.

It isn’t often these days that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs a full-length symphony for the first time. It was a programming coup of guest German conductor Günther Herbig to couple two Czech symphonies for comparison and contrast – Antonin Dvorak’s popular Eighth Symphony and Bohuslav Martinu’s by far lesser-known Sixth Symphony.

The latter, also titled Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphonic Fantasies) was a revelation. Its three movements each sprouted like exotic plants out of murky and nebulous primordial orchestral stew. Gratifyingly tonal, kernels of themes (including a pivotal motif quoting from Dvorak) were developed, transformed gradually by Martinu’s (left) distinctive dynamic and kinetically charged style.

The orchestra dived headlong into its complexities, performing the half-hour work as if it were a long-trusted and well-loved friend. Concertmaster Lynnette Seah’s extended solo in the first movement was a picture of confidence, while the brass’ reassuring chorale closed the work on a sublime calm.

Familiarity with the Dvorak (left) did not lead to contempt, but rather a freshly minted reappraisal. Taken at the brisk clip, there was little time to get bored yet much of orchestral details shone through. Jin Ta’s flute was heard in his resonant best in all four movements while the overall string tone was glorious in full flow. There was an insouciant country lilt in the dance-like third movement, contrasted with a well-paced finale, never rushed for effect, which closed the concert on a rousing high.

Sandwiched between both symphonies was Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. SSO Assistant Leader Kong Zhao Hui, often fondly remembered for his playing of the Butterfly Lovers Concerto, was a paragon of understated virtuosity. Never one for extravagant outward display, his aristocratic mien and thoughtful musicality were inspiration itself.

Producing a sweet but smallish tone, this was no impediment to crafting a reading that was generous with warmth and largesse of spirit. His perfect control in the encore – the Adagio from Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata No.1 in G minor – was further proof of this. Many a young and budding soloist can do well to learn from his example.

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