Monday, 29 November 2010

SSO Gala Concert: Virtuosos / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (27 November 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 November 2010.

It seemed a strange quirk of fate that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra should perform a Mahler symphony just three days after one by the Berlin Philharmonic. On the evidence of the performance led by eminent Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, the national orchestra which recently performed at Berlin’s Philharmonie home, was in no way disgraced.

On a good evening, the disparity between the Goliath and David is much narrower than most imagine. This was one of those evenings. The Seventh Symphony, considered Mahler’s most problematic to interpret and one notoriously difficult for audiences, was on the cards. Allen Meek’s opening tenor horn solo was a tower of strength, so commanding as to set the tone for the first movement’s sequence of processionals to lean on.

The direction was taut, but its driven urgency also allowed for the narrative’s incessant ebbs and flows. Genuine tension was being accrued, but at that magical moment which ushered in the harps, there was a palpable sense of release with the music coming to full bloom. A confident swagger, boosted by excellent brass solos, also made most of the pent-up energy.

The middle three movements, two “night pieces” sandwiching a hellish carousel of a scherzo (arguably Mahler’s weirdest movement), were perfectly judged. The contrasts between country-spun innocence, with cowbells, guitar and mandolin entering the fray, and murky subterranean squeals, wails and groans made for some eventful listening.

The Rondo finale’s fanfares were exultant, but its overlong machinations may have sapped some of the immaculateness in the brass, resulting in some frayed corners. But past the 75th minute, the orchestra was still on even keel as chimes brought the symphony to a breathless conclusion. This qualified to be a close-to-great performance by any count.

The sweetener of the first half was delivered by Swiss flautist Emmanuel Pahud, a principal in the Berlin Philharmonic. Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto was graced by his sweet and gorgeous tone, the fluidity of which made every turn of phrase sound so natural and even easy. His cadenzas were idiomatic and built upon the simplicity of the themes. All stops were pulled for Francois Borne’s Carmen Fantasy, a veritable compendium of virtuoso tricks and devices.

Virtuosos was the apt title for the concert, describing to a tee flautist, conductor and one whole orchestra.

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