Tuesday, 3 December 2013

CIRCUS MAXIMUS! / The Philharmonic Winds / Review

The Philharmonic Winds
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (1 December 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 December 2013 with the title "A blast from Winds".

Composers who write for wind orchestras tend to be specialists, but when a traditional mainstream composer attempts to create music for woodwinds and brass, something special results. Such was the case for two composers in The Philharmonic Winds’ blockbuster concert this evening.

The first was Richard Wagner’s Huldigungsmarsch (Homage March), a short piece written for the 19th birthday of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, something opera lovers may not be aware of. Disciplined and well-honed, the young musicians confidently trumpeted the kind of fanfares one would expect from the composer of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser.  

The second would dramatically close the concert, but there were three intervening works including David Ward-Steinman’s Singapore Sonorama, a new commission receiving its World Premiere. The American composer had visited the island-state some thirty years ago, and these picture-postcard impressions were his “An American In Singapore”.

His references were 1970s and 80s, when Singapore touted itself as a touristic “Instant Asia”. Its four colourful movements included Malay, Indian and Chinese portraits. Dayung Sampan was deconstructed and quoted in the 2nd movement. Govin Tan’s tabla and Shane Thio’s prepared piano (simulating a tambura) provided a raga-like basis for the 3rd movement Little India, while percussion lit up the Chinatown finale.

This well-crafted work gave individual soloists and the ensemble to shine, but had anyone told the composer that the Merlion was ersatz, the figment of some tourism executive’s imagination? Or that the low brass belches within the piece were the first time anybody heard the creature roar?

Korean-Japanese composer Chang Su Koh’s Lament, a funereal trudge that brought out a finely-detailed crescendo, in stark contrast to the slick clichés of American Norman Dello-Joio’s Satiric Dances For A Comedy By Aristophanes.

The titular Circus Maximus was the Third Symphony of John Corigliano, better known for his film music for The Red Violin and a First Symphony in remembrance of AIDS victims. This was an unlikely-to-be-repeated spectacle that could only be experienced in a concert hall rather than through a pair of speakers.

Off-stage musicians occupied all four levels of the Esplanade Concert Hall, and an antiphonal racket ensued, masterfully helmed by conductor Leonard Tan whose Mahlerian task was immense. In this 35-minute long work, Corigliano likened the bloodlust and barbarism of Roman games to modern ills like commercialism, consumerism and channel-surfing.

Some of the loudest music ever to be heard in this venue was balanced by saucy interludes from  saxophones, “wolf calls” from French horns, intimate playing in the two Night Music segments (influenced by both Bartok and Mahler), and a Prayer which highlighted fine brass chorales. To throw in the proverbial kitchen sink, a marching band trooped the aisles, and the music was put to an abrupt end by literally a gunshot to the head (above).   

Who wins this new “war of the worlds”? The jury is still out, but the finest young wind players of the land were taken to task, but emerging as first among equals.

Photographs by the kind courtesy of The Philharmonic Winds.

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