Monday, 28 September 2015


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (26 September 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 September 2015 with the title "Double duty, double joy".

Soloists who perform as well as conduct in the same evening are no longer a rarity at Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts. The latest is Greek violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos, who opened with Beethoven's Violin Concerto from the floor and later stepped on the podium to conduct Dvorak's Seventh Symphony.

The Beethoven was a revelation, coming across as an ultimate piece of chamber music. The long orchestral tutti set the tone, directed by Kavakos on centrestage. The tempo he chose was comfortable, perfectly judged for his solo entry which brought out the sweetest sound one could possibly hope for.

His intonation was spot on throughout, and there was never that tension that usually exists between soloist and orchestra. He and the SSO were in one mind, and one heart together, his Stradivarius rising above the massed strings yet blending as one voice. Here was an arch-virtuoso, renowned for his pyrotechnics in Romantic and modern repertoire, tempering a soloistic instinct in service of this anti-virtuosic music.

With both hands occupied, a mere nod of the head or gesture in the face was enough for his partners to do his bidding, and the result was pure harmony. Things heated up in the first movement cadenza by Fritz Kreisler, taken with a nonchalant ease, and the result was warmth itself. Premature applause from the excitable audience was greeted with a friendly smile by Kavakos, and the feeling of bliss carried through to the Larghetto slow movement, where among the sublime moments included one where his violin was accompanied by pizzicato strings.

The rondo finale was a joyous romp, one so agreeable that a final cadenza thrown in to stir things up seemed only a concession for display for display's sake. Even this was in the true classical spirit, which was roundly applauded. The hair-raising stuff came in Kavakos' encore, a scarcely believable solo transcription of Tarrega's guitar classic Memories of the Alhambra.  

Kavakos is less experienced as a conductor on the podium, but brought out an exciting reading of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony in D minor. The contrast could not have been greater, with the gentility of Beethoven giving way to the raw dramatics of the Bohemian. Even with a reduced sized band, Romantic repertoire invariably tests Victoria Concert Hall's acoustics to the limit. Dvorak, whose orchestration resembles that of Brahms, sounded plethoric especially in the loud climaxes. 

Taking a broader than usual tempo, the first movement dragged a little and some of the nervous tension was lost. However potential for upping the ante existed, and that gradually proved the case. The slow movement provided a mellow spell, all but blown away by the vigourous Slavonic rhythm of the third movement. The symphony never looked back after that, with a return of the energy and drama in the finale.

This time, Kavakos with his shoulder-length locks was practically leaping from the podium, as if possessed. The final climax was an overwhelming one. Dvorak was to complete two further and more popular symphonies, but both would not come close to the sheer angst of the Seventh. SSO and Kavakos nailed this one firmly between the eyes.     

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