Tuesday 2 April 2024

JOHN WILLIAMS - ESSAY & FLUTE CONCERTO / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
Victoria Concert Hall 
Friday (29 March 2024)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 April 2024 with the title "SSO explores film composer John Williams' serious side".

People who attended this Singapore Symphony concert of John Williams’ music might have gotten a shock to find out that the composer of such iconic Hollywood scores as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Harry Potter movies has a totally serious and academic side at odds with what they have been accustomed to.

The John Williams
most people are familiar with.

Williams’ Essay for Strings (1965) and Flute Concerto (1969), composed while he was busy scoring for forgettable B and C-grade movies, received belated Asian premieres, directed by young German conductor Gabriel Venzago. 

A much younger John Williams.

Essay, on first hearing, came across as the more approachable work, its dark hues and chromaticism stirring a sense of foreboding not unlike Bernard Herrmann’s famous music for Psycho (1960). There were many unison passages, brought out very evenly by the orchestra, adding to the starkness being conveyed. And when harmonies arose, these were highly dissonant, indication that Williams had learnt much from the aesthetics of the Second Viennese School and Bela Bartok. 

Heavy pizzicatos rained, and then came fast slithering figures, which the ensemble more than coped, bringing its eventful 11 minutes to an abrupt close. While not as memorable as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the disquieting music has the same ability to get under one’s skin. 

Photo: Aloysius Lim

The Flute Concerto was more forbidding in its idiom. Pointillist shards of sound shot around before SSO principal flautist Jin Ta opened accounts in his highly virtuosic part. His flute stood out above the strings, which punctuated with percussive pizzicatos, and there were many moments resembling the Japanese shakuhachi’s poignant voice. The concerto’s second half was accompanied by pitched percussion - marimba, vibraphone, piano – and any hint of lyricism was at a premium before tutti forces announced the concerto’s violent and troubled conclusion. 

As if to atone for the earlier discordance, Jin’s accompanied encore was his very tuneful and Chinese-influenced Wind Chimes, receiving its world premiere. Its cinematic quality suggests that Jin himself could be a very fine film composer. 

The concert’s second half was devoted to Beethoven Second Symphony in D major (Op.36), which received a taut and cogently thought-out account under Venzago’s baton. The emphatic opening unison note was delivered with devastating unity, which informed the rest of the work. The slow introduction, with tension building up for the Allegro proper, was handled so well that the eventual outcome was a joyous release. 

One could not blame the audience’s premature applause between movements given the orchestra’s conviction extending through all four movements. The slow movement was taken at a broad and leisurely pace which could have done with some tenderness, but the Scherzo and its contrasting Trio section was as lively as it could possibly be. 

With the exciting finale, Beethoven would soon shed his mentor Joseph Haydn’s mould with his next symphony, the mighty Eroica Symphony, to come. However, this performance which closed on an elated high, revealed a quality both composers shared: an unflappable sense of humour.

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