Monday, 3 October 2016

ROCOCO VARIATIONS / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (30 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 October 2016 with the title "Splendid hat-trick".

There was a pleasing symmetry to the pair of concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by its Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu last weekend. Two symphonies in the key of D major bookended a concerto, with all three works sharing a common theme of classicism.

Neoclassical may describe Prokofiev's First Symphony, also known as the Classical Symphony, which was an early 20th century update on the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. “Small is beautiful” is the credo of this delightful work which got a bubbly reading that was also well paced. Amid the busyness was bassoon principal Zhang Jin Min's ever-steady arpeggiated passages that pulsed like clockwork.

The slow movement displayed much lightness in its staccato beat with violins singing a seamless melody. The 3rd movement's Gavotte, where there was a deliberate effort to parody its ungainliness, did not come off as planned. It sounded lead-footed, but the quick-fire finale was mercurial and incisively driven to be truly exciting.

Next came Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, popularly known as just the Rococo Variations. The term rococo refers to a late baroque style that favours simplicity over the typically florid and ornate figurations of the earlier 18th century. It was such a Mozartian theme that inspired this lovely piece which received a stunning performance from SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian.

Sporting a short-sleeved tee-shirt and with his hair tied up in a short tail, the orchestra's youngest ever principal was the epitome of chic informality. More importantly, his playing also expressed that sense of freedom, one with a rich, singing tone that projected richly to the highest circle seat, and perfect intonation. 

His nimbleness was articulated perfectly in the tricky variations, and the slower, more lyrical moments were a marvel of tenderness and grace. The furious finale variation was delivered with unabashed aplomb, and the loud audience applause was rewarded with Bach's Prelude in G major as encore, three more minutes which were simply sublime.  

Beethoven's Second Symphony completed the evening's programme. Its punched out opening chords were loud and uncompromisingly direct, as if trying to make a point. The slow introduction soon led into the Allegro section of raw virile energy. Here was Beethoven's angst, coinciding with the onset of his irreversible deafness, laid out for show.

The orchestra was on the same page throughout, and while there was bustling activity in the 1st movement, the slower 2nd movement benefited from a sturdy unceasing pulse that lent much to its attractiveness. The Scherzo was vigorous and full bodied in its approach, which set the tone for the rollicking finale.

Here, a relentlessly hectic pace could have been pursued, but conductor Kamu favoured one that allowed its wit and humour to come through. As the much animated finale drew to its feverish close, one could easily discern that this was no routine run-through, but a bona fide and true interpretation. 

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