Monday, 13 January 2014


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (10 January 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 January 2014 with the title "Blissful tunes from the past".

Three landmarks or milestones were celebrated in this evening’s concert. The obvious one was the 150th birth anniversary of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) around which a mini festival was built. Another was the coming 80th birthday of Fou Ts’ong, the first Chinese and Asian pianist to make a mark in the West, by winning 3rd Prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1955.

Sporting a full head of jet black hair, he did not look like an octogenarian. His gait was slower than before but maintained a dignity which always distinguished this patrician among pianists. His playing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488) seemed to roll back the years.

He did not project a big sound, but that was not necessary for Mozart in any case. His pearly tone and limpid runs in the faster outer movements, free of arthritic afflictions, were proof that all his faculties were gloriously intact. The Adagio slow movement brought out the most beautiful legato playing, the tragic lilting air being the work’s emotional high point, before fluently letting rip in the exciting finale.

The audience yearned for an encore, but sadly there was none. However they could console themselves for having heard the finest of the three Esplanade appearances by Fou playing Mozart concertos. He seemed to find a second wind in the Indian summer of an illustrious career.

The last landmark was also the first piece in the concert, a revised version of Singaporean Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang’s Sinfonia Concertante. Its six minutes represented the only Singaporean music to be performed in the SSO’s 35th anniversary season. Precious as that was, Tang jam-packed many ideas into a short duration. Dissonant and eclectic, the piece had the kinesis of a Stravinsky ballet and opulent lyricism of Alban Berg’s orchestral pieces, with the orchestra making the best possible case for it.

And finally to Strauss, the Singapore premiere of his Symphonia Domestica. Its relative neglect next to the Alpine Symphony, A Hero’s Life and Don Quixote, programmatic tone poems all, is understandable. Its subject of Strauss’s family life was considered self-indulgently hubristic, and its length – 45 minutes – could sound interminable.

Completely opposite of the Tang work, its few themes were developed and stretched to the maximum of its possibilities. Thankfully, conductor Lan Shui’s single-minded vision of its narrative held its four sections tightly together. Even if one were to ignore its sequence of domestic bliss and squabbles over a 24-hour period, the work still made musical sense.

Vital to this was the orchestra’s never less than involved playing, especially by the woodwinds, and notably in the baby’s serene dream sequence. Pan Yun’s oboe d’amore was singularly a charmer, matched only by guest concertmaster Andrew Haveron’s tender violin representing Frau Strauss. Despite the work’s bombastic end, its reception revealed not a few admirers, and that cannot be such a bad thing. 

Concert photograph by the kind permission of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

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