Saturday, 21 October 2017

SSO GALA: JANINE JANSEN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (19 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2017 with the title "Summer solstice and Arctic winters".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra gala concert that showcased Dutch violinist Janine Jansen carried in its publicity the adjectives “Golden, Delicate, Ethereal”, as if this would add to the allure of her Singapore debut. It also applied to the evening's first soloist, SSO's Associate Principal cor anglais player Elaine Yeo, the heart and soul of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' short tone poem The Swan Of Tuonela.

Hers was the most mournful of solos, first answered by Ng Pei-Sian's cello counter-melody, and then gliding over a calm lake of muted strings and soft drum-rolls. Starkly beautiful, the timelessness of a mythical landscape was evoked. Dark and brooding, yet strangely comforting, this has to be the best advertisement ever devised for a land of the dead. 

Large part of its success is owed to the subtle yet decisive direction of young Swedish conductor Daniel Blendulf, who reprised the same in Sibelius' evergreen Violin Concerto in D minor which starred his wife Jansen. Their partnership was not a contest of strong wills, but a dramatic masterclass on how an orchestra supports a soloist to the ultimate triumph of music.

For her part, Jansen has to be the most commanding and charismatic of violin soloists since those cherished 1999 gala concerts which featured a certain Anne-Sophie Mutter. From the concerto's quiet flickering opening, Jansen ran the gauntlet of dynamic extremes with a frightening intensity. She maintained a strong, incisive tone with perfect intonation throughout, so acute as to melt icebergs and boil lava, a volatile meeting of volcanic fire and glacial ice.  

Try as one may, there was no alternative to sitting on the edge of one's seat with this kind of playing. Her pianissimos in the outer reaches of the 1st movement cadenzas and slow movement were crystal clear, and within seconds would expand inexorably into shuddering climaxes.

The audience held its breath through the relentless drive in the finale's “polonaise for polar bears”, and there was no letting up until the last cadential outburst. Prolonged applause and bravos were greeted with an encore of perfect temperance, the sublime Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita No.2.

If the Sibelius relived Arctic midwinters, conductor Blendulf summoned Merlin-like a Bohemian summer solstice for Dvorak's convivial Eighth Symphony in G major. The sheer warmth it radiated from the opening bars, aided by Jin Ta's smiling flute solo, would have made both orchestra and listeners relax, but wait, there was to be several stings in the tail.

Respite without vigour and vehemence as contrasts is pointless, and this performance brought the two opposites cheek by jowl as to make both viewpoints feel equally vital. The slow movement's rusticity and ensuing waltz of the 3rd movement sounded all the more special on this count. As trumpets rang out the fanfare heralding the finale, the scene was set for one last celebratory hurrah, which closed with more vocal outbursts of acclaim. Gala concerts are supposed to end this way.

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