Saturday, 19 February 2011

SSO Concert: Notes from America / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (18 February 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times
on 21 February 2011 with the title
Old favourites, fresh sound.

Ever since the Singapore Symphony Orchestra did away with its enormously popular Familiar Favourites Concerts series, listeners had to figure for themselves which concerts they should attend to be reacquainted with well-loved melodies. This evening’s fare, bringing together Mozart and Dvorak, would have qualified to be a FF, to borrow a common parlance among SSO musicians.

There are few symphonies more familiar than Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, often nicknamed the “New World” because he had written it in America. Under the direction of Yu Long, China’s pre-eminent conductor, the orchestra resisted the temptation to engage auto-pilot.

Knowing how difficult it is to make some hoary old chestnut sound afresh, the orchestra did a fine job. There was mystery aplenty in its quiet opening for low strings, and when the horns emerged for the energetic main theme, the effect was an impressive one. There were many students – likely newcomers - in the hall, and they responded with silence during the music and applauding in between movements.

That was easy to forgive, given the vociferous applause and standing ovation accorded at the work’s end. How they and the regulars must have appreciated Elaine Yeo’s wonderful cor anglais solo in the Largo, or Jin Ta’s mellifluous flute throughout, and Han Chang Chou’s commanding French horn. Conductor Yu, on his part, helmed an unfussy reading that was both rich in detail and intensity.

The first half’s Mozart was equally memorable. The Marriage of Figaro Overture buzzed with comic relief with the strings leading the way. The darkly shaded tutti of Piano Concerto No.24 (K.491), one of two minor key concertos of Mozart, soon gave way to the sunshine and clarity of Argentine Nelson Goerner’s immaculate pianism.

Doesn't Nelson Goerner look like
the great Shura Cherkassky?

Bald and diminutive in stature, he resembled from certain angles a young Shura Cherkassky. And like the late-lamented master, he made every phrase his own, singing and articulating crisply in a way that is hard to resist. His choice of cadenzas, contrapuntally interesting and romantically conceived by the Russian Nikita Magaloff (I later learnt from Goerner himself), was an unusually inspired one.

The slow movement was pure bliss itself, while the finale’s theme and variations brought out some bare-knuckled barnstorming, dramatic yet never overstated. For his many curtain calls, the audience was rewarded with two contrasting encores by Chopin (√Čtude Op.10 No.5, "Black Key") and Schubert (slow movement from Sonata in A major, Op.120). Just about perfect.

This is what a standing ovation looks like.

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