Monday, 2 August 2010

SSO Concert: The Young Person's Guide / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (30 July 2010)

This reivew was published in The Straits Times on 2 August 2010.

The concert’s rather silly title came from Benjamin Britten’s entertainingly didactic The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. However, performed without a narrator who usually introduces the orchestra’s instruments, it is more appropriately titled Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Purcell.

That title would not help sell tickets, would it? Anyway, the orchestra under Shui Lan’s direction demonstrated what a group of virtuosos it possesses. The grand opening theme, familiar to those of a certain age group as theme music for ETV (Educational Television), is subjected to some of the most ingenious and humorous variations ever conceived.

Typical Britten, delivered with prowess and precision. When Roberto Alvarez’s perky piccolo smartly introduced the fugal theme, it heralded a show of contrapuntal mastery, lapped up with typical relish. And how the audience loved it.

The other big work was Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, performed by the Korean-American Jennifer Koh (left) replacing her namesake, the Briton Jennifer Pike. The winner of the 1994 Tchaikovsky International Violin Concerto gave a committed and deeply personal reading, etching out the finest of pianissimos while blazing a fiery path through the thorniest solo passages.

She reveled in its extremes, finding most poetry in the slow movement where her willowy figure swayed and contorted as one with the music. For the finale’s primal rage, her tone however hardened, maintaining a steely and nail-biting edge till the final note. Koh reciprocated the vociferous reception by luxuriating with a Bachian encore.

Lollipops filled the rest of the concert, presumably works the orchestra has just recorded for a forthcoming disc. SSO’s celebrated strings were the stars in the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, spinning yarns of seamless silk in an ultra-smooth performance. In Elgar’s Salut d’Amour (how romantic it sounds as opposed to its original title in German, Liebesgrüss), liberal portamenti gave it a sentimental, almost sickly, lustre.

Far more robust was Rossini’s swashbuckling William Tell Overture. Principal Cellist Ng Pei Sian’s opening solo was a thing of rare beauty, blending perfectly with his quartet of cellists. The storm episode sounded congested, with trombones trying to keep up with the volume, but Elaine Yeo’s lovely cor anglais and Jin Ta’s nimble flute salved frayed nerves in the pastoral scene. The galloping romp that ensued made sure of a grandstand finish. That CD should be worth waiting for.

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