Monday, 13 February 2012

SSO Concert: An Alpine Symphony / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (10 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 February 2012 with the title "Delicious repartee with SSO".

At first glance, this appeared like a regular subscription concert, with concerto followed by symphony. It was in fact a first official collaboration between the national orchestra and the national conservatory, held at the national arts centre. The flourishing of Singapore’s musical scene within the last decade was in large part down to the collective strengths of these three organisations.

The concert was a culmination of sorts, beginning with a magnificent performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor. The soloist, the Chinese-Australian Qin Li-Wei, had made his first appearance with the SSO during the mid-1990s with this concerto. Now head of cello studies at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, this was a welcome return with dividends multiplied manifold.

While his firm grasp of its technical demands was never in doubt, now as it was then, the breadth and depth of conception had also matured. This was no longer about a prodigious youngster aiming to make an impact, but a fully-formed soul enjoying the music-making and persuasively revealing its secrets. The tone he eased from the 1780 Guadagnini cello was sumptuous, and his repartee with the orchestra delicious.

The orchestra also stood its ground well, the cohesiveness of ensemble was matched by excellent individual solos. Han Chang Chou’s French horn, Jin Ta and Roberto Alvarez’s flutes made one pay attention to details normally missed on casual listening. The “live” recording made of this performance on Decca Records will be one to look out for. As the most appropriate encore, Dvorak’s Silent Woods was offered, another chance to savour Qin’s inimitable artistry.

In the second half, 46 conservatory students filled the ranks to join the SSO for Richard Strauss’s gargantuan An Alpine Symphony. Playing over 50 minutes, this programmatic tone poem in multiple sections about a mountaineering expedition in the Bavarian Alps threatened to outstay its welcome. It was conductor Shui Lan’s keen mustering of his forces that held the bloated work together.

The crucial themes, representing the Mountain, the Sun and the Mountaineers, were well-defined on the outset, and so when these were reprised in various guises of transformation, the music made strong narrative sense. The accompanying frills, including special effects of offstage brass, pelting snowstorm with wind machine and thunder plates, all fell into place as each peak and each climax was gamely overcome. It was short of subtlety, but what a glorious noise was created.

One just needs to hear the 1993 recording of this work to see how far the SSO has progressed since then. As if to seal the Orchestra-University union, a generous encore of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, overflowing with bawdy student drinking songs, lustily concluded the evening’s musical carousing.

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