Monday, 29 August 2011

Some Reflections on OMM's Rach 3

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (26 August 2011)

There comes a time in the life of a young orchestra when it has to perform a demanding work that is a cornerstone of the repertoire but is neither a popular choice of the players nor of the audience. And a time when it has to collaborate in a concerto that has the most difficult orchestral part of all. That time is now, in what has been the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) most challenging concert to date. OMM has already surmounted the peaks of Mahler’s first two symphonies, but was it ready for Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto?

This onerous task was taken on by British conductor Christopher Adey, well known as an orchestral trainer and one-time professor of OMM’s Music Director Chan Tze Law at London’s Royal College of Music. Under his guidance, OMM gave very credible if somewhat raw accounts of both works.

First the Rachmaninov, which featured arguably the finest pianist resident in Singapore, the Filipino Albert Tiu. He was rock-steady from start to finish, getting all the notes in with great assurance, and generating a high voltage and frisson that is expected for such a work. However his solos in all their finery were muted for much of the first movement. Was it a case of balance, where the orchestra should have toned down, or could the pianist have exerted more of himself? The heroism in the score only came alive in the cadenza, where Tiu wisely chose the longer and heavier alternative, bringing a sonorous presence that was hitherto lacking.

The short orchestral introduction in the slow movement was ill-focused, sounding almost lacklustre, and again it was up to Tiu to pep up the proceedings. No worries in the waltz-like central episode where the orchestra gaily danced in step with the pianist for a delightful roll in the hay before the showdown of the finale. Certainly this was an exciting performance, not least because there were moments when the ensemble came close to careening off the tracks. Synchronisation between pianist and orchestra was a whisker away from disaster; one missed beat or one false step and it would have come apart. Thankfully both parties persevered to the very end, and along the way there was playing of sheer passion and purpose which made earlier concerns seem finicky.

The Shostakovich was admirable for different reasons. For once, the orchestra was coping with an idiom that was far more dissonant than what it had ever encountered. The low strings in the dark and murky subterranean opening created a genuine feel of unease that was to permeate much of the work. The monumental first movement inched its way, gradually and achingly towards daylight. It was an arduous journey which Adey helmed with great resolve, with much of the orchestral details well defined and articulated. The climax was reached with much deliberation and the catharsis of pain and suffering complete.

The brief but ferocious Scherzo movement, Shostakovich’s portrayal of Stalinist evil, was well realised, even if it did not snarl as malignantly as the Singapore Symphony’s performances from the old days (this symphony was one of Choo Hoey’s favourite showpieces). The third movement proved the trickiest of the lot, with the composer’s quotes of his own initials DSCH and the enigmatic Elfira theme (E-A-E-D-E) being the crux of the matter. Here the wind soloists were excellent, especially clarinettist Chang Hong, bassoonist Lim Tee Heong, oboist Tay Kai Tze and flautist Cheryl Lim, in characterising the themes. The French horn had an off-day, each of its 12 entries had the quality of playing Russian roulette – you don’t know which chamber was loaded.

The finale was a riot of sound, a parody on Soviet society where the apparent merry-making is a cloak for something far more sinister. Here the orchestra revelled in its high jinks, and the playing was back to the highest order which previous concerts have led us to expect. It was a brave decision to programme this symphony, but a necessary step in the growth and development of an orchestra. Despite the raw edges, this concert should still be considered a success, and it will be revealing when OMM returns to these works in the near future.

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