Thursday, 1 November 2018

RAVEL TONIGHT! / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (28 October 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 November 2018 with the title "Ravel showcase of exquisite colour".

The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau continued with its Composers Tonight series of concerts with a tribute to the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel was renowned for his skill of orchestration, creating orchestral works of original and exquisite instrumental colour, and all three works on the programme  reflected that gift.

Beginning with the song cycle Sheherazade, with three movements inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights, the emphasis was on conjuring up an exotic tonal allure. While not quoting Middle Eastern or Asian themes and melodies, the music exuded an aroma of perfumed incense which immediately cast a spell on the imagination.

China-born Soprano Su Yiwen, singing in French the words of Tristan Klingsor (obviously a nom-de-plume, but one with a Wagnerian persuasion), played a large part in the aural magic. Her voice was sufficiently sensuous, and strong enough to carry across the occasionally over-enthusiastic orchestral playing. The opening song Asia set the mood, followed up by excellent solo flute playing which prefaced and closed The Enchanted Flute, and a final tease in The Indifferent One.

Totally different was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, a work unique that it incorporated Basque influences with those of New World jazz. Malaysian pianist Nicholas Ong was a most persuasive soloist, one who perfectly judged its idioms, pacing and nuances.

Knowing when to act coy, then ratcheting up the temperature in insistent syncopations for the opening movement, and settling down with Mozartian clarity in the slow movement was all part of the game. The exciting prestidigitation of the Presto finale brought down the house, which was rewarded with Ong’s solo encore, the stately Minuet slow movement from Ravel’s Sonatine.     

All through this drama, there were also many taxing solo parts for the orchestral musicians, all of whom readily stepped up to the plate. The harpist had a demanding cadenza of her own and woodwinds, so critical to the music’s sound palette, also were excellent. Even the percussionist who operated the whip (essentially two pieces of wood smartly snapped together) was spot-on.

The concert closed with Bolero, one of Ravel’s most popular works, which he famously declared “a work without music. As repetitious as it might have been, there was no denying the hypnotic power of this infamous crescendo, with solo instruments and various combinations piling on layers of sound over a snare-drum’s obstinate beat.

Visually it was also a spectacle, with a sole percussionist centrestage leading the parade while string players strummed out pizzicato beats like a massed group of guitars. Notably absent was the concert series’ usual master of ceremonies William Ledbetter, but Ruth Rodrigues’ comprehensive and semi-interactive programme notes made up for it, if one was bothered to read. All in all, it was an enjoyable 80 minutes of one’s Sunday afternoon well spent.

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