Monday, 7 July 2014

POSTURES / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (4 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 July 2014

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert of the 2014-15 season gave the audience a sneak preview of the programme to be performed at BBC Proms in London on 2 September. Aiming to make an impact at its Proms debut, the orchestra served a heavy dose of familiar Russian warhorses as well as a new work by an Asian composer.

Conducted by Music Director Shui Lan, the orchestra began with Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, a showcase of its prowess in short pieces or lollipops. From its outset, the furiously running string passages were well matched by the players, and when called upon, solo woodwinds and brass shone brightly. Within five minutes, the appetiser which piqued the senses was over.

Receiving its World Premiere this evening was Chinese-American composer Zhou Long’s Postures, a piano concerto co-commissioned by the Proms and SSO, and performed by the renowned Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger. Taking away all connotations of the work as a kung fu inspired piece, its 25 minutes duration highlighted the piano as a virtuoso percussion instrument.

The first movement Pianodance saw piano and orchestra as equal partners, sharing in the rhythmic pacing that dictates its narrative. It celebrates the hunter-shaman of Northeast China, one who imitates the movements of animals in its game, and the dynamics range from roaring fortissimo to still pianissimo.

The piano dominated the central and longest Pianobells movement, with the orchestra relegated to soft background string tremolos and the occasion percussion outburst. The piano simulated many kinds of bells, from the deep stroking of its innards, chord and trills occupying the high registers and drolly repeated figurations.

Its dream-like sequence was shattered in the tumultuous finale Pianodrums, which recalled Beijing Opera and the most recognisably Chinese of the movements. Here the piano was integrated into the wider percussion ensemble of the orchestra, yet it found its voice in the form of a shrill battle cry which relived the exploits of the Monkey God. Cymbals, xylophone and a battery of drums kept up with the action, and the work ended in outright exuberance.

Nothing quite sounds like this work. Not even the super-violent and ultra-percussive Bartok First Piano Concerto comes close.       

The concert closed with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony  in E minor, a Romantic throwback to the lush and unabashed emotionalism of Tchaikovsky. This is one of the orchestra and conductor Shui’s favourite showpieces, yet the risk of over-polishing the work to blandness was thankfully avoided.

The key to sounding fresh was to take certain risks, and that was apparent in the first two movements and finale, which strained at the leash without breaking out of control. The slow movement with Ma Yue’s leading clarinet solo was a thing of beauty, but the orchestra’s use of portamentos (sliding between notes) was somewhat overdone. When heard for the first time, sentimentality is sufficiently evinced but repeated hearings tended to descend into bathos.

Nonetheless the orchestra maintained its momentum without flagging through the 55 minutes. The chorus of bravos that greeted its triumphant end could soon be repeated at the Royal Albert Hall come September. 

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