Concert review: Benjamin Grosvenor and Okko Kamu exotically similar in musical instinct

Much has been made over the years about the lack of support shown by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra towards local musicians. Whether the criticisms were warranted or not, the orchestra deserves credit for attempting to dispel that negative notion. This season's programme sees several commissioned works by Singaporean composers and more Singaporean soloists than before.

Young composer Emily Koh's compositions may come across as inaccessible to the general audience, with her unorthodox and atonal writing often leading to confusion. Yet her latest work, Jia[K], could very well be one of the masterpieces of the 21st century.

Aiming to depict the chaos and sensory overload one experiences in our famed hawker centres, her scoring calls for inventive ways to create layers of sound by pushing the boundaries of traditional technique on the various instruments. The opening muted trumpets creatd a buzzing effect which produced a disturbingly nervous energy when paired with the pizzicato violins. Her audacity in writing an entire passage featuring just the double bass section stems from her training as a bass player, but who would have thought they were capable of such virtuosic and clearly sustained solos?

Principal conductor Okko Kamu is the antithesis of the modern conductor, who seems more interested in being watched than heard. This consummate artist does not need fancy baton technique to get his point across, and on this night the orchestra responded with aplomb.

On Friday night at the Victoria Concert Hall, the sensitivity and seriousness shown by the musicians in Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra from the opening bars carried the angular lines with a sense of beauty and purpose. While Bartok does not directly quote Hungarian folksongs, the influence was strikingly apparent in the vitality of the dance rhythm and changing meter.

The influence of Hungarian folksongs also features prominently in the works of Franz Liszt. Though his Piano Concerto No. 2 is less outwardly flashy than the first, it contains moments of pure harmonic and melodic awe.

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is Kamu's junior by decades, but their temperament and musical instincts are exotically similar. His technical prowess is peerless, as reflected by the ease with which the torrential octaves and arpeggios were tossed off; his inner sensibility and ability to craft breathing lines out of printed notes underlines his standing as one of the great musicians of our generation.

Even in taking the march in the finale at break-neck speed, the music was never permitted to veer into vulgarity although it could have used just a dose of flamboyance to better effect.

Schubert described his Symphony No. 4, nicknamed "Tragic", as "death, the grave, and eternal rest", which Kamu delivered on this night with dramatic conviction. The theatrical energy whipped up in the opening movement were at odds with the youthfulness of the work, and the uncertainty of the symphony showed more glimpses of hope than death. Eliciting a darkness of tone from the strings throughout, Kamu really went for broke and ratcheted up as much tragic intensity as possible.