Saturday, 8 September 2012

SSO Concert: HAN-NA CHANG / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (6 September 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 September 2012 with the title "Daring double duty as soloist and conductor".

For the first time in the history of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, a concert has been titled with just the soloist’s or conductor’s name. In this case, the former child prodigy Korean cellist Han-Na Chang was both soloist and conductor. Not even Yo-Yo Ma or Mischa Maisky, just to name two of the world’s greatest cellists, have been accorded that somewhat dubious privilege. And this was not even a gala concert.

That the 29-year-old Chang is the superstar cellist of her generation is without question. Her choice to perform Haydn’s popular Cello Concerto in C major was also a good one. All she needed to do was to sit down, and the orchestra taking the lead from the uncredited guest concertmaster played itself. She offered neither downbeat nor even the effort to beat time, instead merrily playing her solo part while offering approving glances time and again at the players around her.

Strangely enough it worked perfectly, as the music was mostly predictable and was not subject to great upheavals. The orchestra was all ears in the gentle slow movement, allowing Chang’s cello to sing and soar unimpeded above the accompaniment. The finale was a nervy tightrope act, which was negotiated unerringly and totally musically. As with chamber music, all on stage were equal partners, but was Chang a bona fide conductor?

This mystery was answered in the second half’s Prokofiev Fifth Symphony, a complex work that demands an interpreter at the helm rather than mere time-beater. All scepticism was suspended as the orchestra launched into its dramatic first movement with much gusto. Clad in tails and trousers, Chang resembled a diminutive circus ringleader, who circumscribed wide sweeping arcs with her baton.

Although there was a score in front of her, she never referred to it or flipped a single page. A safety net in place merely emboldened her, for she knew exactly what she wanted and got it from the orchestra. Clear and precise and clear hand movements, sometimes balletic but always fluidly energised, characterised her direction.

The acid-lashed Scherzo, full of irony and insinuating detail, was sufficient proof of intent, and that was followed by a cathartic Adagio – full of overwrought feelings and a tumultuous climax - that sealed the deal. Here was not a run-of-the-mill performance by a journeyman conductor just passing through, but a wholly compelling one from a true musician.  

By the time the machine gun-like pulverising force of the finale fired its last echoes, one was not so much struck by the angst and suffering from this wartime symphony, but by the sheer power and beauty of the music. That the SSO responded with such heartfelt and natural immediacy was a boon. A welcome return by Han-Na Chang the conductor, as well as cellist, could not come soon enough.
At the post-concert Symphony Chat, Han-Na Chang showed herself to be extremely personable and articulate. She spoke on a number of topics including great conductors who influenced her (Kleiber, Karajan and Bernstein) as well as how as an 11-year-old she realised her dream by getting to meet "Slava" Rostropovich. 
Not afraid to be outspoken, she remarked that it would be nice to have a few good woman conductors  in  a field of many not-so-good man conductors!

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