Wednesday 14 September 2022

UNBRIDLED PASSIONS / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review



The Philharmonic Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Tuesday (13 September 2022)


It has been several years since I last heard The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) playing at full strength. Last year’s New Year’s Eve Concert, under Covid pandemic restrictions, had a maximum of 30 players, but this concert was to be different. Lest one forgot, TPO was the orchestra every young player wanted to be in before the coming of OMM (Orchestra of the Music Makers). TPO under founding Music Director Lim Yau performed the first cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Sibelius symphonies at the Esplanade during the noughties. For that, the outfit which continues to attract many talented young players, deserves total respect.


Lim Yau, having turned 70 this year, has now handed the baton to his son Lin Juan, who continues in the fine tradition. Lin is only the second second-generation conductor in Singapore, the first being Goh Soon Tioe and Vivien Goh dating back almost 40 years ago. Nonetheless, Lin is a force to reckon with his understated and quiet confidence in leadership, quite different from the awe and deference (some say fear) that his father commanded (unintended or otherwise) from his charges.


The evening opened with Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights), six settings on verses by Theophile Gautier with soprano Teng Xiang Ting. Teng alone would have been the reason to attend the concert as there is no other singer like her, one with a most beautiful and well-rounded voice, supported by the widest range of registers and emotions possible. The late music critic Marc Rochester was spot on in naming her Singapore’s first opera star.


In just two songs, a taste of delectation beckoned; lightness and airiness in Villanelle, and depth of feeling with a sense of the epic in Le spectre de la rose. By the way she voiced Reviens (Come back) in Absence, one knew she really meant it. By the final L'île inconnue (The Unknown Island), the persuasion to join her on that unattainable voyage – any voyage to anywhere - becomes all the more irresistible. The chamber-sized orchestra that accompanied Teng was sensitive and responsive, and there was never a fear she would be overwhelmed. Her voice simply does not allow for that.


Following the intermission, the full orchestra came on for the monumental Symphonie Fantastique. I still remember Lim Senior leading in the SSO in this same work almost 30 years ago, with a first half filled with orchestrated Beatles songs (laudanum-LSD being the supposed common inspiration). Lim Junior’s account was no less vivid, even when working with mostly student musicians. In the opening Reveries-Passions, strings in particularly fine form generated a rich and mellow sonority, stepping up accordingly with heightening tensions. Un bal (The Ball), a waltz in a Parisian ballroom, provided more pleasure with the contribution of two harps.


Even Scene aux champs (Scene in the Fields), the symphony’s “boring” movement was actually made to sound eventful. Kudos to the fine cor anglais and offstage oboe soloists, playing the communing shepherds, a marvellous solo clarinet for a reminder of the idee fixe and gripping timpani rolls as the sound of distant thunder. As expected, the Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) built up inexorable pace and momentum, with brass having a field day, all the way to the falling blade. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of the Witches Sabbath) was a riot of sound, complete with a wonderfully blaring Dies Irae and tolling tubular bells, but one that was kept under control without going full "Shining" Jack Nicholson. All in all, a memorable performance from a dynamic young group that seemed almost inconceivable 20 years ago.  


Over the past fortnight or so, one has witnessed in Singapore very good (some stellar) performances of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons, Bartok’s Divertimento, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and now Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, none of which were by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Does that spell progress, or what?

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