Friday, 22 November 2013

CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (20 November 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 November 2013 with the title "Twittering in the night music".

The title of this concert was rather apt. Other than referring to Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece that was on the programme, it also reminded the listener that every piece of music performed was a virtuoso act, and each member of the orchestra was a soloist in his or her own right. 

The true concerto of the evening was Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which showcased the outsized talents of Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei. Head of cello studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, he made light work of its ferocious demands. Whether waxing ironical on the work’s insistent four-note motif, bringing out the bittersweet lyricism in the slow movement, or battling demons in the extended cadenza, his grasp was never in doubt.

Equal to the task was principal French horn Han Chang Chou, whose echoing of that motif and pitching of counter-melodies against the cello provided a trenchant response. The orchestra led by Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu gave subtle accompaniment while exerting itself when it mattered. As a tribute, Qin’s gesture of taking curtain calls sans cello (which meant no encore) was a gallant one. He was not going steal the thunder from his partners.

The subject of an orchestra of virtuosos was apparent in the first piece, Jean Sibelius’s early tone poem En Saga.  There was an ethereal hush in the opening, created by quiet violin tremolos. Not everyone was playing, and when they did, players were bowing in opposing motions. This effect was to create a mystique from which the non-programmatic work germinated and grew to mighty proportions, as a legend (or saga as the title implied) would.

The very assured viola solo from Zhang Manchin singing the principal theme came like a bard of ancient times recounting tales of fantasy while Li Xin’s clarinet solo at the close was the hero surviving another day to spin his yarn for eternity later. With such vivid music-making, conjuring up imagery became almost second nature.

Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was the orchestra’s calling card in its early concert tours during the early 1990s. The reason is simple: the five movements gave musicians more than ample opportunities to flex their solo abilities besides sounding terrific as a massed body. This performance did not disappoint, with the strings and woodwinds in particularly impressive form.

The second movement’s Game of Couples was a good indication of the prowess of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets playing in paired tandems. The brass faltering for a few steps in the central chorale did little to dampen the ardour. The Elegy had flute and piccolo twinkling and twittering in the night music, and the Interrupted Intermezzo, with its parody on Shostakovich, had the best jokes cracked by the rollicking brass.

The finale was an excellent show of ensemble and togetherness, cemented by tautness of the playing and razor-fine reflexes, truly living up to the title of the concert.     

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