Whispering sweet nothings with music

REVIEW / CONCERT

RAY CHEN PLAYS BRUCH

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Ray Chen (violin), Andrew Litton (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Thursday

American conductor Andrew Litton was very much on home turf with the concert opener - Copland's An Outdoor Overture. Most of the orchestra, however, were in alien territory and hung on to his every direction as if their lives depended on it. The result was a concentrated and tightly focused performance that saw the Singapore Symphony Orchestra produce some unusually precise and controlled playing.

Setting the strings out in what was once regarded as the norm - violins to the left, cellos and basses to the right - Litton created a wonderfully spacious soundscape exuding a vivid sense of the great American outdoors, which is what Copland's music is all about.

With Bruch's First Violin Concerto, both Litton and the SSO were on well-trodden ground, and it was left to Ray Chen to inject a degree of individuality into the performance.

He did so by highlighting the rhythmic character of the outer movements to such an extent that his violin took on a distinctly percussive character.

Squeezed into a suit so impossibly tight that one half expected it to split at the seams at any moment, Chen seemed particularly restrained in his playing of the gorgeous slow movement. What made this so effective, however, was the extremely soft dynamic levels he and the orchestra achieved. It was as if they were whispering sweet nothings into our ears. There is something beautifully touching about seeing so many people on stage producing so little sound.

As with his appearance with the SSO last week, Litton devoted the second half of the concert to a major Russian symphony from the 20th century. On this occasion it was Prokofiev's Fifth. He has impressive credentials in the Russian symphonic repertory and, with a fair contingent of expatriate Russian players in the SSO, this should have been something very special.

It certainly had its moments, not least in the pulsating rhythms, which built up to culminate in one explosive chord, like steam being let off from a high-pressure valve. The delightful push-me/pull-you violins of the second movement were another moment to savour.

Elsewhere, however, the performance seemed to wander aimlessly, and there were even isolated moments when - horror of horrors - one found oneself wondering whether it might not be just a tad too long for its musical material.

It was probably just coincidence that so many of the audience members decided to leave before it had run its course - there were children among these departing families who, presumably, had school to go to the next morning.

Ultimately it was their loss, for, with one gloriously explosive flourish, Litton pulled the rabbit from the hat to end the symphony on an excitably triumphant note. He had, it transpired, known where he was going all along.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2016, with the headline 'Whispering sweet nothings with music'. Print Edition | Subscribe