Monday, 2 July 2018

GIL SHAHAM PLAYS TCHAIKOVSKY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Sunday (30 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 July 2018 with the title "Shaham shines in spirited violin concerto".

The first concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2018-19 season took place not at the Esplanade or Victoria Concert Hall, but on Kent Ridge at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Conducted by Music Director Shui Lan, it was part of the orchestra's outreach programme in July with concerts in various venues across the island.

There was also an educational element to this ticketed event, in the form of a helpful preamble before the first work, Richard Strauss' tone poem Macbeth. Its main themes were explained and short excerpts performed by the orchestra. One of the German composer's earliest works, it was influenced by Beethoven (notably the hushed opening in D minor) and Schumann before taking on a life of its own.

Adventurous harmonies, which established Strauss as one of the great late Romantic composers, piqued the ears and soon it looked ahead towards the familiar Don Juan, which was not too far in the future. The orchestra, fresh from a month-long vacation, launched headlong into its martial and dramatic themes, revelling in the cut and thrust of the struggles of the Shakespearean anti-hero.

Soaring strings were pitted against strident brass, but the balance was just about right. In this generally reverberant hall where there was a tendency to harshness in fortissimos, the decibel quotient was easily reached but both conductor and orchestra instinctively knew how to attain that ideal without having to over-exert.

Despite some very enthusiastic accompaniment, American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham was in no danger of being overwhelmed in Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto. His voluminous tone easily filled the hall, rising all the way up to the circle seats. This was matched by his natural virtuosity and barely contained enthusiasm, which quickly raised the temperature and spirit of the performance.

His solo entry was arresting, later followed up by the cadenza which sizzled with white-hot passion. In response the orchestra also upped its game. Despite the programme notes exhorting the audience not to applaud before the end of the work, the advice was roundly ignored with loud bravos issuing at the rousing close of the opening movement.

The hushed and melancholic air of the slow movement's Canzonetta was but a short respite, and here the woodwinds shined in ensemble and solo passages. Then it was in the finale where the violin fireworks ensued, with Shaham's dare-devilry dominating, supported by an almost choreographed footwork on the stage.

One might be hard pressed to remember a performance of the Tchaikovsky that oozed such irresistible elan, and the audience response with equally vociferous applause. As an encore, Shaham shared the spotlight with outgoing SSO concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich in the delightful Andante Grazioso from Jean-Marie Leclair's Sonata in E minor for two violins. This was simply a crackling start to the orchestral season.   

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