Thursday, 13 November 2014


MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands
Tuesday (11 November 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 November 2014 with the title "Terrific orchestra, terrible acoustics".

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s debut concert in Singapore was a late addition to its East Asian tour, and because of the unavailability of Esplanade Concert Hall, had to be held in the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands. There are good reasons why symphony orchestra concerts are not held at this cavernous venue far better suited for Broadway musicals and pop concerts. This otherwise historic event may be summarised in four words: terrific orchestra, terrible acoustics.

But first, the audience stood to attention for the opening works conducted by the IPO’s Music Director for life, Zubin Mehta. Zubir Said’s Majulah Singapura in Phoon Yew Tien’s arrangement was followed by Hatikvah (The Hope), the national anthem of Israel. Contrasts could not be greater, Singapore’s extroverted major-key march with Israel’s melancholic minor-key plaint. Both were greeted with heartfelt applause.  

Vivaldi’s popular Concerto for Four Violins in B minor featured four of the orchestra’s lady violinists as soloists. Electrical amplification was apparent from the outset, and while all four were evenly highlighted, it was curious to hear one player ornamenting her part far more than the others. A case of one-upwomanship was beginning to upset the balance.

By the time Mozart’s Symphony No.36, nicknamed the Linz (after the Austrian city), came on, the artificial boosting of certain sections of the orchestra started to play havoc on the ears. This was no fault of the players or the conductor who strived to give an honest and committed account. Instead of hearing a homogeneous sound, amplified woodwind and brass with added reverberation emanated from the giant speakers on either side of the stage.

Depending where one sat in the hall, the perspective of sound was glaringly off centre, and this got worse when the orchestra played louder. As much as one tried to enjoy the playing, the unfortunate distortions were both trying and distracting. The audience also did not help by clapping in between movements, and conductor Mehta had to raise his hand to stop premature applause in order for the finale to begin. This alone raised ripples of laughter, rather than outright embarrassment.   

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is an ideal showcase for touring orchestras, and in terms of sheer passion and virtuosity, the IPO did not disappoint. The sense of cohesion, tightness of ensemble, and the 78-year-old conductor’s magisterial approach to tempos and dynamics all contributed to a stirring performance. In the slow movement, the principal French horn’s solo was a thing of lingering beauty. The 3rd movement lilted with rare grace before the finale’s hell-for-leather development section and grand apotheosis.

All this had, of course, to be filtered through the morass of unnatural sonority, which included extraneous noises of microphones being accidentally knocked and other indignities. At least the audience saw fit the orchestra’s valour in this field of battle to be accorded an instant standing ovation. Their reward was an encore, the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, with its gorgeous string playing.

At a post-concert reception, conductor Mehta thanked his hosts and expressed the hope of IPO returning to play in a “better hall”. Although the event to commemorate SG50 was well-meaning, this humiliation of sorts was a corollary to the state of the pitch in the Sports Hub, another big question mark as to whether we know the true meaning of being “world class”.

To add insult to injury, concert programmes were sold at a ridiculously inflated price of $30. Classical concerts in Marina Bay Sands should not be like shopping for mobile phones in Sim Lim Square, where one is likely to be short-changed.   

Conductor Zubin Mehta at the post-concert reception,
with Israel's ambassador to Singapore
H.E.Yael Rubinstein fondly looking on.


Peter Lye said...

Tou Liang,
Your review is more insightful of the the 2 reviews I have read.

1.Good music with bad acoustics is great in justice to both performers and audience. Reminds me of Placido Domingo performing at indoor stadium. Unfortunately, classical music also gets a good dose of BAD economics. Should have held it at Victoria Concert Hall but the takings would be too low or the tickets too exorbitant.

2.Having maestro Metha to stop the inappropriate clapping in between movements is a big disgrace to Singapore. With tickets running up to 400 quids, the audience are likely to be well heeled financially but not equally well informed in classical music. I told a fellow friend who jostled me to go that it is likely to be liken to a Tatler event to see and to be seen and not for the music mostly. Skip this concert and the earlier earlier concert by Valery Gergiev with LSO because I could not afford the tickets. In the case of Gergiev, the fact that he was sympathetic towards Russia in the Ukraine conflict was additional push. BTW, was also disappointed that Yuri Bashmet did the same.

3.The more somber minor key is feature of Jewish music but I concur that that to have a national anthem keyed in minor is definitely not main stream.

Peter Lye aka

Samuel Sng said...

Hi Touliang,

I read your review in last week's ST Life. Let me share how it went for me...

I bought the cheapest category ($90). That would be the last 3 rows of the balcony of Sands Theatre in MBS. There was a pair of speakers on the ceiling which was obviously pointing straight at the top-half of balcony where I sat. Much of the amplified sound was coming from this pair of speakers. I have attended many performances here and know that the natural acoustics is quite dry. So judging by the amplified sound from the speakers which was larger-than-life and quite "round" or mellifluous", I instantly knew that they manipulated with the audio output. It is really hard to say how the orchestra would sound with completely no mics. It might well be that the mics was still a necessary evil.

The audience (at least for balcony) was quite weird and not your typical classical music audience. At least half of the people on balcony were INDIAN expatriates and not our local Indians. Many brought in champagne glasses into the hall. I wonder how the ushers could have allowed that. Many were obviously not able to finish their drinks and left their half-full glasses on the floor! So crude... During the national anthems of Singapore and Israel, many of these Indian expatriates did not stand. That is again very bad EQ and utter disrespect. The applause in the first half after every piece was just deplorable. They would clap at most for 10 seconds and stop clapping after that. I still recall the astonishingly meek applause after the Vivaldi concerto. The soloists looked bemused when the applause suddenly ceased while they were still standing on stage during their one and only curtain call. Mehta and the soloists must have felt so lousy within themselves after such a fine rendition...

Oh yes, the start time... I'm not sure whether you realised, the concert started at 7.50pm. No announcement was made of the long delay or reason behind it. I was later told that they had to look after the sponsors and prominent guests. Huh??

The programme was very costly ($30). Considering the already exorbitant ticket prices, I felt that the programme could be easily subsumed into the ticket price and given "free".

Generally, I feel that the whole evening felt so unprofessional - audio, organiser, sponsor, audience etc. The musicians and their superlative music-making was the only saving grace...

The sound of Israel Phil has improved tremendously since I last heard them in Europe many years ago. Their sound is more coherent and solid now... Next year when I visit Europe in summer, Israel Phil is touring Europe with Bruckner 8 and Mahler 9. I will try to catch their performance somewhere.

Samuel Sng