Monday 4 March 2024

LAN SHUI & BOMSORI / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (1 March 2024)

This review was first published in on 4 March 2024 with the title "Conductor Laureate Lan Shui's poignant return to the Singapore Symphony". 

This concert marked a return of Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s second music director, after a hiatus of five years. His tenure from 1997 to 2019 was pivotal, transforming a competent regional orchestra to one of international standing with highly-acclaimed recordings and international tours. He assumed the post of Conductor Laureate after a farewell concert with Mahler’s Second Symphony in February 2019. 

The evening also saw Korean violinist Bomsori Kim return, remembered as the first international soloist to perform in Singapore after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted in 2021. On the cards was a relative rarity, Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, often twinned with Sibelius’ violin concerto in recordings despite being very different. Besides their birth-year, another thing in common was a homage to J.S.Bach. While Sibelius heavily revised his to make it less Bachian, Nielsen stuck to his guns. 

Photo: Chris P. Lim

A punched-out C minor chord, followed by an opening violin cadenza in G minor with the orchestra holding a pedal-point in G provided an early shock. Kim’s adroit handling of the Praeludium, reminiscent of the Bachian beginning of Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto, was admirable, with the thread of lyricism maintained throughout. Even in the boisterous Allegro cavalleresco, orchestral textures were kept light and transparent to let her musical lines shine through. The thorny cadenza at its end was superbly handled. 

The second movement’s spelling of Bach’s name – B flat, A, C and B natural – was sensitively voiced by oboist Pan Yun, later echoed by violin in a ruminative but short-winded wallow. In the light-hearted Rondo, one of Nielsen’s cheeriest melodies with whimsicality and rusticity standing out, Kim’s nimbleness and dance-like take were totally enjoyable. Culminating in another elaborate cadenza, the concerto wound down to a retiring close and another shock - a loud orchestral chord in D major to end. Kim’s encore of Grazyna Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice, also folk-inspired, was an inspired choice. 

It was pure happenstance that Singapore audiences got to witness Mahler’s First Symphony twice within eleven days, by the Hong Kong Philharmonic (Jaap van Zweden) and now the Singapore Symphony. Comparisons were inevitable, making for a fascinating study in critical listening. 

The rapt stillness in the opening’s evocation of dawn was assiduously observed. Trumpets were kept onstage yet these sounded as if in der Ferne (in a distance), no mean feat. Principal clarinettist Ma Yue’s cuckoo calls were more sharply-delineated, leading into the movement proper which felt more organic in its build-up. The music’s natural flow, pregnant with tension-filled quiets, ensued before a fulsome climax was reached, also prompting premature applause at movement’s end. 

Lan Shui was the Singapore Symphony's
Music Director from 1997 to 2019.
Photo: Chris P. Lim

The Scherzo was not as vigorously driven as Hong Kong’s, instead taking a gentler and more nuanced look at the Austrian Ländler, including a Trio section that wallowed in schmaltz. Yang Zheng Yi’s excellent double-bass led the way in the funeral march, droll minor key iteration of the Frère Jacques theme. The klezmer interludes were a little more subdued, thus lending the quote from Wayfarer song Zwei Blauen Augen an added poignancy. 

The titanic struggles of the finale, emanating from that “cry from the wounded heart”, were not so much blazing triumph but a subconscious tide that constantly tugged and pulled at the heart-strings. The grandstanding close with eight French horns, trumpet and trombone up on their feet was an impressive look, but much more were concealed from plain sight. One just had to listen. 

While Hong Kong Philharmonic awed and thrilled with virtuosity, Singapore Symphony touched and moved with its humanity. Fortunate and privileged were those to have savoured both performances – and orchestras - in their prime and glory.  

Star rating: *****

The original review on may be found here: Conductor Laureate Lan Shui’s poignant return to the Singapore Symphony | Bachtrack 

Read Mervin Beng's review in The Straits Times here: 

Concert review: Lan Shui enraptures with Bomsori Kim pairing and SSO conducting comeback | The Straits Times

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