Monday, 17 September 2018

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE / Yuri Bashmet & Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia / Review

Yuri Bashmet &
Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia
University Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Wednesday (12 September 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2018 with the title "Singapore violinist a bright spark".

It is always interesting to hear a youth orchestra from the land that gave the world talents like Kissin, Vengerov and Volodos. Their last names alone will register a stir of recognition, as would Bashmet, founder-director and chief conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia, who also happens to be the world’s most famous violist.

Singapore was the first stop in the 100-strong orchestra’s Asian tour, where it gave a two-and-a-half hour concert. The exhausting programme opened with the Asian premiere of Kyrgyzstan-born Kuzma Bodrov’s Journey Through The Orchestra, a fancy set of variations on Paganini’s popular Caprice No.24. The music traversed through baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary styles with pastiches on Bach, Mozart, Grieg and Prokofiev trotted out like a primer of music history.

The young players were over-stretched by its elaborations, sounding raw and exposed at times, not helped by the venue’s dry and unflattering acoustics. Inexperience also hampered the ensemble while accompanying violinist Tatiana Samouil in Tchaikovsky’s indestructible Violin Concerto, where they were not always in sync.

A former prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky’s International Violin Competition, Samouil exuded a warm and sumptuous tone in a reading that was conducted at a broad and almost leisurely tempo. Only in the vivacious finale did sparks fly, but sounded like a mad scramble towards the end.

The brightest spark of the first half came in 11-year-old Singaporean violinist Chloe Chua’s partnership with Samouil in Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for two violins (RV.522). That the Menuhin Competition winner was able to hold her own, matching every move of a professional four times her age and two heads taller was just stunning. And she looked like enjoying every bit of the outing too.

All doubts about the orchestra’s prowess were dispelled in a stirring and heartfelt performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. This was the composer’s attempt at atonement after being criticised by Stalin for an earlier opera deemed decadent and anti-Soviet. Another failure would have meant the gulag, or worse.

The slashing discords that opened the four-movement work were played with conviction and unanimity of purpose. Soon decibels piled on with a juggernaut of a march, whose sheer volume and stridency was potentiated by the hall. With eardrums pricked and pinned to the wall, one’s full attention was gotten but the pain was certainly worth the effort. The 2nd movement’s irony was less than subtle, deliberately so, but what truly tugged at the heart was the Largo slow movement.

Bashmet yielded a feast of catharsis from the strings, and when one thought the level of pathos could not be bested, a new high was attained. Even the banality of the finale, described in the programme notes as a “triumphal march”, could not disguise the passion displayed all around. True depth of emotion and artistry shines through, especially at knife-point and the threat of death.  


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