Monday, 23 January 2017

WEST SIDE STORY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2017 with the title "Exhilarating Americana ride".

Just one day after the inauguration of a new American president, there was a Stars and Stripes theme to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's concert led by Associate Conductor Joshua Tan. Even the Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh's Blossoms, receiving its World Premiere, was American-influenced. An alumnus of the University of Kansas, his two-movement work supposedly followed the progress of the national orchestra from its inception to present prominence.

Odyssey, its impressionist first part introduced a two-note motif with the interval of a falling minor third, and there was an extended cello solo from Principal Ng Pei-Sian serving as development. This was followed by the fast-paced Ecstasy, using an inversion of the earlier motif as a kind of retort. Its jazzy dynamism, with flying pizzicatos and a riff-like clarinet solo from Li Xin, was reminiscent of Bernstein but tinged with a local flavour.

An outstanding stand-alone piece, it also dovetailed perfectly into the general programme. What followed was John Adams' Violin Concerto (1993) with Singaporean violinist Kam Ning as the exuberant soloist. Coincidentally, the first two notes of her entry were almost identical to the two-note motif of the preceding work. According to Goh, it was a case of pure serendipity, and the path soon diverged with Kam's extremely taxing solo part taking off into a different orbit.

Almost improvisatory in feel, her violin soared above the fast chugging built upon a rhythmic ostinato, and this ever-evolving notion of recreating variations continued into the central slow movement's Chaconne entitled Body Through Which The Dream Flows. How she sustained interest through its langorous and somnolent path was a feat, which meant in compensation the final Toccare had to be a hell-for-leather romp.

Supported by scintillating strings, hyperactive electronic keyboards and a timpanist working overtime, its feverish pace trumped everything that had come before for a fast and furious finish. It was more Americana for Kam's encore, where she was thrillingly partnered by cellist Ng in Edgar Meyer's bluegrass hit Limerock.

The second half belonged to Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which was conducted by Tan from memory. This score orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal includes most of the musical's dance numbers and some songs but not performed in sequence. As with much of the earlier music, the audience was brought on an enthralling ride, which included the snapping of fingers, a police whistle, the obligatory fugue and in the rumbling Mambo, two shouts of “Mambo!”.

Hitherto lukewarm in previous attempts, the orchestra did put more effort this time in its vocalisations. It would be in the songs Somewhere and I Have A Love, now wordless, where the music itself would have the greatest traction.

The concert had a neat built-in encore, Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine, an extended orchestral fanfare that luxuriated in his fast minimalism, building in pace and revving away to some distant checkered flag. It was all over in four minutes. Catch your breath, and be left in the dust to smell the fumes. 

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