Monday, 20 January 2014


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (18 January 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 January 2014 with the title "SSO built by Choo Hoey sizzles".

In the summer of 1996, Choo Hoey gave his final concert as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducting Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Elevated to Conductor Emeritus, he was given the honour of helming the orchestra’s 35th Anniversary Concert, with Strauss’s music again on the menu.

The much shorter tone poem Don Juan provided a sizzling opener. One could be forgiven for not expecting the 80-year-old maestro to maintain such a sprightly gait, mount the podium with a spring that suggests someone a quarter of his age. He directed with broad strokes from a slight torso, animated as before but gone were the fidgety, spasmodic and sometimes violent gestures from his earlier years. As always, Choo is a veritable dynamo, one who does not rest until he gets he wants.

What we the audience got was a youthful account of a warhorse, with brass and strings in superb form, the eponymous rake of legend striding high with his string of conquests and amours. The quartet of French horns in the big melody was a pride to behold, but it was the more tender moments that held sway: Lynnette Seah’s short violin solo, and the delightful duet between oboist Pan Yun and clarinettist Li Xin.

Another woodwind pairing starred in the Duet Concertino from Strauss’s last years. It was Choo who brought clarinettist Ma Yue and bassoonist Zhang Jin Min, both principals (above), to Singapore. In gratitude, they reciprocated in this concerto with playing of cohesiveness and delicacy, each soloist complimenting the other with alternating lyricism and jocularity. A chamber-sized ensemble supported with light textures that took care not to overwhelm.

Choo conducted Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in his last concert here in 2009, and this time the Bohemian composer’s Ninth Symphony received an airing. If anything, this performance was even better. Clearly his charges were all out to make his day as the playing resonated with vim and vigour. 

Decades ago, this orchestra would shine mostly in the faster and louder movements, with slow movements being exposed for its weaknesses. Not so the SSO of today, as the famous Largo produced some of the most refined playing. Elaine Yeo’s cor anglais was a leading light, but it was also difficult to ignore the beautiful hushed quality of muted violins, and passages gently accompanied by bass pizzicatos.

The Scherzo’s rambunctious Slavonic dance and rousing finale rousing impressively closed the concert, which was greeted by a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation. Once he stepped off the podium, Choo never went back up, instead acknowledging his every charge from the floor. 

Whenever you hear the SSO outdo itself again, remember well that this was the house that Choo Hoey built.

Once he got off the podium, Maestro Choo Hoey
did not get back on it to take his bows.

The maestro with long-time friends,
Principal Second Violins Zhang Zhen Shan,
duo pianists Low Shao Suan and Shao Ying,
and SSO Board member Prof Lim Seh Chun.
All photographs by the kind permission of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

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