Monday, 19 September 2011

SSO Concert: The Sibelus Symphonies: Finlandia / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (16 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 September with the title "SSO's past and future"

It was 26 years ago when Finnish conductor Okko Kamu first conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in two concerts that would alter the destiny of the orchestra. On that weekend in early 1985, the main work played was the Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, in performances that made the orchestra and audience believe that the SSO was capable of truly great things.

In 1994, Kamu was appointed the orchestra’s first and only Principal Guest Conductor to date. Strangely this is the first time he is attempting a Sibelius symphony cycle here, with seven symphonies spread over four concerts. This is nothing new, as the mostly-amateur Philharmonic Orchestra led by Lim Yau had completed the cycle in three very creditable concerts in 2007-2008.

Nevertheless, a sense of déjà vu was compelling as Kamu mounted the podium to open with the tone poem Finlandia. Taken at a less aggressive than usual stance, there was room for the music to breathe. The brass was well marshalled, resisting every temptation to blare out uninhibited, and the glorious hymn from the strings sung out like the patriotic anthem it is. This was a Finlandia of nobility rather than dogged resistance.

This similarly broad approach was adopted for the Second Symphony in D major, composed around the same time. Its heroism came from the opulence of sound that enveloped the whole work. Never hectic or harried, there was time to radiate the music’s warmth, from the strings led by guest concertmaster Lothar Strauss in his debut, to chirpy woodwinds and burnished brass.

In this performance, one was reminded not by the icy lakes or granitic crags of Sibelius’s homeland, but rather the more comforting and reassuring sauna. There was no breakneck rush towards the finale’s valedictory resolution but a steady build up that was equally exciting in a different way.

Wedged in between the Sibelius works was Frenchman Edouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor played by Ng Pei Sian, the orchestra’s Principal Cellist. At 27, he is not only the youngest principal ever appointed but also the first who is actually younger than the orchestra itself.

Age was no impediment to the sheer artistry he brought – a seamless singing tone, flexibility in shifts of mood and colour, and the virtuosity to make the complex sound simple. The purity of sound in his encore, Saint-Saëns’s The Swan, was the icing on a pretty solid cake.

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