Friday, 8 October 2010

SSO Concert: SSO @ National University of Singapore

University Cultural Centre
Wednesday (6 October 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 October 2010.

The last concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra before its European concert tour provided listeners with a preview of the very works specially chosen to wow its Continental audience. This sense of anticipation was more than realised, with performances that displayed its versatility and instrumental virtuosity.

The evening began with Chinese-American composer Zhou Long’s The Rhyme of Taigu, a rhythmically vigorous essay which may be compared with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The traditional taiko drum did not feature, but its insistent beat was replicated on timpanis and bass drum, spiced up with a temple block. Thematic interest was provided by Ma Yue’s sinuous clarinet solos which simulated the Chinese guanzi. With brass in fine fettle, the short piece romped home with aplomb.

Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead,
which inspired Rachmaninov's tone poem.

More substantial was Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, a subtle exercise of gradual crescendo based on the medieval chant Dies Irae. Never quoted in full, its ominous overtones loomed ever so menacingly, passed from one instrument to another as Chiron’s boat of death overcame lapping waves of the River Styx.

The gentle build-up to its mighty catharsis was expertly handled by Shui Lan and his charges, and the new theme in the major key shone like sunshine through a shroud of black clouds. Its quiet ending could have been more mysterious as its lugubrious journey into the underworld made its final stop.

Still on a sea-faring theme, Debussy’s La Mer has become SSO’s bona fide calling card, having made a widely-praised recording in 2007. An added dimension was afforded by SSO violinist William Tan’s photography (left) of marine flora and fauna projected on a giant screen. Not that the music needed this kind of augmentation, but it made for most pleasant viewing.

This symphony of images numbering in the hundreds was lovingly scripted. Close-ups of curious crustacea and polyps went down well with the danceable Waves at Play, while fishes with gaping mouths (an indirect reference to the audience?) gawked as The Dialogue of Wind and the Sea came to a brilliant fruition.

Despite the brass occasionally sounding wayward, the orchestra mastered the unflatteringly dry acoustics of this multi-purpose hall well. A good orchestra will thrive whatever the environment. The British and German audiences to come are in for an aural treat.

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