Monday, 6 December 2010

SSO Concert: The Rite of Spring / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Friday (3 December 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 December 2010.

Nearly a century after the riotous reception at its first performance, Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite Of Spring retains its freshness and ability to shock. Never has a work so indelibly captured the ethos of the 20th century. One year after its 1913 premiere, the world was plunged into the carnage of the Great War, from which mankind has yet to recover.

The iconic opening bassoon solo, evocatively shaped by Zhang Jin Min, introduced listeners to a brave new world, where chaos and uncertainty reigned unchallenged. The ensuing passages of seemingly random woodwind and brass sequences were guaranteed to bewilder and disorientate. Even the entry of the strings provided scant comfort, instead lacerating scrapes and grinding thumps of a persistent migraine in the Adolescents’ Dance.
From this to the fatal whirling of the Sacrificial Dance, SSO Principal Conductor Okko Kamu kept a tight rein, but one which allowed for quieter sections where an uneasy calm lulled the senses before the final all-out assault. Not every entry was immaculate; the concertmaster’s solo passage in harmonics at the beginning of the second half went awry, for instance. However this performance as a whole amply illustrated the orchestra’s enormous progress since its first account of the work way back in 1992.

The concert began with Prokofiev’s First Symphony, nicknamed the “Classical”, taken at a very brisk clip. Even at this speed, no details were lost, and its Haydnesque wit and charm much enhanced. Grace and gentility in the slow movement, followed by an exaggerated ungainliness in the third movement’s Gavotte made for neat contrasts, while the finale’s perpetual motion swept the board clean.
Yet another highlight of a superb concert was the guest solo by Chinese cellist Wang Jian in Saint-Saens’ warhorse First Cello Concerto in A minor. A regular visitor here since the early 1990s, he never disappoints. While one has already begun to regard his virtuosity of execution as a given, it is the sheer wealth and largesse of his tone that continues to stagger.

The way he shapes the cantabile passages, traipse through the elegant little waltz in the concerto’s slower central section, and coax a beautiful sound from his 1622 Amati cello remains a marvel. His two encores of unaccompanied Bach were the icing on the cake. May he return again very soon.

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