When a conductor transforms an orchestra

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier (above) and pianist Dimitri Alexeev were poised while playing on the edge.
Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier (above) and pianist Dimitri Alexeev were poised while playing on the edge.PHOTO: IMGARTISTS.COM
Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and pianist Dimitri Alexeev (above) were poised while playing on the edge.
Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and pianist Dimitri Alexeev (above) were poised while playing on the edge.PHOTO: IMGARTISTS.COM

REVIEW / CONCERT

SSO SHAKESPEARE 400: ROMEO AND JULIET & RACHMANINOV PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor), Dimitri Alexeev (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

The third instalment of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO's) Shakespeare 400 subscription concerts saw French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier returning to the podium directing two works by countryman Hector Berlioz in a vivid demonstration of how a conductor can transform an orchestra.

Born some 30 years after Beethoven, French composer Berlioz's forward-looking ideas on orchestration and his disdain for classical form present stern challenges for any conductor and orchestra.

Not so for Tortelier and the SSO, who opened with a sound so different that one could be excused for thinking that an acoustic overhaul had recently occurred at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The Shakespeare-themed Romeo And Juliet is considered to be one of the composer's greatest works. This extended suite is written for orchestra with chorus and solo voices and only movements from Part 2, which are purely orchestral, were performed.

The breadth of timbres and emotions depicted in Berlioz's writing is breathtaking, requiring exquisite attention to detail and musical line, qualities Tortelier demonstrated beyond reproach. The Queen Mab Scherzo is a devilishly tricky movement.

The composer even had doubts that any large orchestra could perform it as he had intended, but the strings of the SSO were scintillating and the horn section handled their even trickier parts with dazzling fleetness.

Tortelier's penchant for shuffling the order of movements each time he takes on the Romeo And Juliet excerpts is puzzling though. On this occasion, he performed the three movements in reverse order, starting with the Scherzo, which did not work for this reviewer.

Also included in the programme was Berlioz's overture to his opera Beatrice And Benedict, characters from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Russian pianist Dimitri Alexeev was the soloist for Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, a work that seems to challenge orchestra and soloist to outdo each other at every twist and turn.

The pianist, however, never lost sight of the inner beauty to be found in the music, even in louder sections, which he delivered with full gusto.

He also played an achingly beautiful second movement, partnered most convincingly by Li Xin on the clarinet.

The final movement, full of vigour and optimism, is prone to overplaying by orchestra and soloist, but Alexeev and Tortelier pulled off a great feat in retaining poise while playing on the edge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'When a conductor transforms an orchestra'. Print Edition | Subscribe