Sunday 18 September 2011

100 YEARS LATER: PETRUSHKA / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (15 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September with the title "Taut playing of Petrushka".

Veteran conductor Lim Yau completed the third leg of his personal quest of performing Igor Stravinsky’s music this year with an outing of the ballet Petrushka, completed exactly a century ago.

Consistent with The Philharmonic Orchestra’s approach to musical appreciation, this was preceded by The Philharmonic Chamber Chorus singing two short hymns by Stravinsky and a Russian folksong, to illustrate the composer’s sources of musical inspiration. The first half however belonged to irrepressible actor-presenter William Ledbetter (below), a wellspring of musical knowledge and on this evening a one-man ballet troupe.

Not only did he “dance” out the roles of the titular clown puppet, ballerina and Moor to musical excerpts, he also did a fine job demystifying the jargon associated with modern music – polyrhythms, bitonality, Petrushka chord, hemiolas and the like. It was almost sad to see this born entertainer take his leave, but the music had to begin sometime.

With Petrushka, Stravinsky had already made several advances from the late Romanticism of The Firebird towards his epochal The Rite of Spring. In using the 1947 orchestration, smaller forces allowed for a leaner and more transparent sound, which the orchestra exploited to the fullest.

The opening and closing Shrovetide Fair scenes boasted some very alert and taut ensemble playing, with conductor Lim tightly engaged on the reins. While there were some less than precise moments in the Danse Russe and short snatches of the final tableau, this kinetically charged and exuberant score received nothing less than total commitment from the young orchestra.

Stravinsky’s ingenious interplay of rhythm and harmony was clearly and coherently delivered, with no half measures given. Pianist Nicholas Loh was a pillar of strength in his virtuoso solos. Woodwinds were generally excellent, the standout being flautist Marcus Tay, with the pair of clarinets, whose elucidation of the Petrushka chords was spot on, not far behind. Pride of place goes to trumpeter Nattapong Veerapun, whose silvery tones in the central dance segment and the muted Petrushka’s ghost should not go unnoticed.

The only disappointment was the small audience. Perhaps the Ministry of Education should make special arrangements for its multitudes of music students to attend the orchestra’s thoroughly laudable educational endeavours. Till that happens, one eagerly awaits The Rite of Spring.

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