Tuesday 11 July 2017

GIL SHAHAM. BRAHMS SYMPHONIES / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (7 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 July 2017 with the title "A night of lovely fantasies".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's new season opened with the music of a Singaporean composer. Soir, Reves, Fantaisie (Evening, Dreams, Fantasy) is the slow central movement of Tan Chan Boon's Second Symphony. Beginning with a French horn solo from Marc-Antoine Robillard and accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings, it conjured vistas of a bucolic Alpine scene. This and a second theme from the strings formed the meat of the movement, which unfolded with a quiet majesty and aural lusciousness before closing in total tranquillity.

Composer Tan Chan Boon
with SSO Music Director Shui Lan.

Tan is a 21st century composer with a 19th century soul. Mining a rich vein ploughed by the Wagner-Bruckner-Richard Strauss axis, he has already completed five symphonies. On the form of this sensitive reading, surely the SSO and Music Director Lan Shui has it in them to explore more of Tan's rewarding music.

American violinist Gil Shaham, a regular visitor to these parts, was the commanding soloist in Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. The enfant terrible of Russian music, Prokofiev was to painfully pique ears with his brand of lashing dissonance, one which Shaham delivered in shovels. Crafting a vitriolic tone that was wholly appropriate for the work's grotesqueries, this performance came into its own in the lacerating Scherzo.

Shaham's use of sul ponticello (bowing near the violin's bridge) to create a wiry metallic timbre made the hair stand, soothed only by the finale's fairy-tale soundscape which was beautifully rendered with a balance close to perfect. Like Tan's work before, there was a pleasing symmetry to its fantasy-filled dream-like ending.

As an encore with orchestra, the brief and barbed Scherzo was reprised to no less stunning effect. On his own, Shaham offered the Gavotte from J.S.Bach's Partita No.3, which elicited even more cheers from the audience.

The concert closed with the First Symphony of Johannes Brahms. Like Beethoven before him, there can simply be no exhaustion from listening to Brahms' symphonies. Conducting completely from memory, conductor Shui took a more measured approach compared with his more mercurial stance on Beethoven's symphonies.

The sombre opening, full of foreboding and portending tragedy, was taken at a broad tempo. But this was not one of indolence or lack of volition, but one that gradually built up to a crushing climactic high. Like a skilled storyteller, the clarity and final aim of narration was never in doubt. The atmosphere was more relaxed in the slow movement, where Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's lovely violin solo capped a fine showing near its close.

Woodwinds had their turn to shine in the light and spirited 3rd movement, paving the way for the dark clouds ushered in by the finale. How sternness and brooding in a minor key is transformed into major key sunshine, culminating in the finale's Beethovenian hymn-like melody was the miracle of this masterpiece. The opportunity offered to the orchestra was joyfully reciprocated as Shui led his charges to a glorious end, which was greeted by the applause it richly deserved. 

Conductor Shui Lan and violinist Gil Shaham
at the post-concert Symphony Chat.

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