Thursday, 11 November 2010

100 YEARS LATER: THE FIREBIRD / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Lim Yau, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (8 November 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 November 2010.

The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) performs about three concerts a year, but that does not deter it from undertaking ambitious projects. Its latest is the first in a cycle to perform the three great ballets which Igor Stravinsky wrote on commission by Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes.

A hundred years after the Paris premiere of The Firebird, TPO did some major commissioning of its own. Young Singaporean composer Emily Koh’s 10-minute-long After Igor was the result. Scored for the same orchestral forces as Firebird, Koh did not attempt to imitate or recreate the Russian’s style. Instead her tone poem was a wholly original essay reflecting a mysterious sound world on the threshold of tonality.

There were some vaguely familiar moments – string reveries, brassy fanfares, evocative woodwind solos – which all made for an atmospheric and satisfying appetiser for the ballet’s main course.
The full Firebird score of 1910 is very seldom performed simply because it calls for gigantic resources including three harps, and plays for 50 minutes. The composer astutely fashioned suites in 1919 and 1945, which are a breeze at 20 and 30 minutes respectively.

It was thus a total pleasure to hear the uncut music, conducted by Singapore’s leading ballet and opera conductor Lim Yau, with narration by actor-musician William Ledbetter (below). The latter’s script was imaginatively written and delivered with cleverly timed precision, never intruding into the music’s discourse.

Rich in detail, there was much to marvel at the sumptuous Rimsky-Korsakov-inspired orchestration with young Stravinsky’s individual touches. Much of the intervening music between the familiar dances, omitted in the suites, was a revelation. One could hear how all of this later evolved into Petrushka and savage spectacles of The Rite Of Spring and even Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.

All of this would be moot if not for the fine playing from all departments. The Firebird’s swooping entry, the folksy Princesses’ game with golden apples and Khorovod (Round Dance) were dispatched with sensitivity and rhythmic coherence. Solos from the French horn, oboe and bassoon also stood out. Only in the wild Infernal Dance did some loss of control result in several harrowing seconds. No pain no gain, as the saying goes.

Further orchestral extravanganzas are expected from this intrepid semi-amateur group that continues to break the rules about how classical music is perceived in the 21st century.
Concert photos by Vincent Wang

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