Thursday, 4 January 2018

NEW YEAR'S EVE COUNTDOWN CONCERT 2018 / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall (31 December 2017)

The New Year's Eve Countdown Concert by The Philharmonic Orchestra, now in its eighth edition, took on a different format this year. It became a more serious affair than before. There were fewer of the lollipops, much less talking and philosophising by emcee William Ledbetter, and since it marked the last concert of TPO's Beethoven Symphony Cycle (celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2017), including a complete performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

The first half was conducted by Edward Tan, taking leave of his usual Concertmaster role and “promoted” to the podium. The first work was Weber's Der Freischütz Overture, not any easy debut task by any means, especially in the slow opening which dragged and saw some straying intonation from the French horns. However the fast section was taken at a very good pace, filled with verve and vitality which made up for the earlier diffidence.

The good start was followed, unusually, by Leroy Anderson's Fiddle Faddle, as if to show off prestidigitation from the strings. The section held it together impressively, and this short work was accompanied by projections of photographs from TPO's earlier Beethoven symphony concerts – held in four different venues – and the state of conductor Lim Yau's glorious un-coiffured mane. The photographer certain has something for his locks flying and flapping against the wind.

Bizet's Carmen Suite No.1 was next. The suite does not have perennial favourites such as the Habanera, Toreador's Song or Bohemian Dance. However its movements amply displayed the prowess of the orchestra's splendid wind section – solo flute (with harp) in the Intermezzo, solo bassoon in Les Dragons d'Alcala, oboe and clarinet in the Seguedilla and others. They are truly the pride of the orchestra, certainly well marshalled by the young guest conductor Tan.

There was a long intermission of 30 minutes, for champagne, snacks and toilet break, thus allowing enough time for the orchestra to rest, begin and end the Beethoven Fifth at the stroke of midnight. Without neither fanfare nor introduction, TPO Music Director Lim Yau leapt onto the stage to give the downbeat for the symphony's familiar four-note motto theme.

The 1st movement was taken at a vigorous pace, nowhere near as hectic or relentless as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's speed (led by Shui Lan at the beginning of the year), but comfortable enough for the TPO players to handle. It was just as exciting, its onward momentum given a check by the excellent solo oboe before closing on a high.

The 2nd and 3rd movements were well contrasted, even if one might have liked the slow movement to have luxuriated a little, but remember this symphony had to end by the dot of twelve. The goose-stepping of the Scherzo was very confidently timed, and the ensuing fugato was excellent, leading up to the triumphant finale for the entry of the trombones.

Again this music's feel-good factor, a counter to the opening movement's Fate knocking at the door, was truly well brought out by the entire orchestra, not just the busy brass. This may be seen as a summation of the symphony cycle's journey from impetuous youth to defiant ageing that was Beethoven's lot. The coda and final bars played as the projected countdown clock made its inexorable way from 20 down to the dawn of 2018.

As it turned out, the orchestra hit its final chord some seconds short of the actual stroke of midnight, but no way was Lim Yau going to slow down and impede the ongoing movement just to make it on time. Thanks for not being a metronome.

The balloons had yet to fall, so it was Edward Tan's turn to cue the audience's synchronised clapping for Johann Strauss the Elder's Radetzky March. The cascade did come down to greet the new year. What will 2018 hold for the world? Amid some shuddering thoughts (the threat of nuclear war and yet more terrorist attacks, not to mention global warning), there is hope yet.  


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