The news that Charles Dutoit was unable to make his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was a disappointment, but there was plenty of consolation in that his stand-in was to be another world-renowned conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier.
The opening work of Saturday's concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, the Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel, was first composed as a work for children of his close friends the Godebskis, for piano with four hands. So strong was the work that the composer's publisher asked for orchestrated versions, and this evening the shorter five movement suite was performed.
Conducting without baton, Tortelier and the SSO produced a soundscape that highlighted the rhythms and harmonies that make the work a favourite with children and seasoned concert goers alike. Conductors sometimes use this work as a platform to show off their conducting prowess, but not Tortelier. Instead he painted with music, using a delicate brush and a gentle, mostly pastel palette, with bursts of colour when called for.
From the opening cadenza, it was evident that Ilya Gringolts had his own ideas of performing Bruch's Violin Concerto. Taking a measured, introspective approach that inevitably sacrificed a degree of warmth, he offered a fresh reading of a well played romantic concerto. Less predictable than other performances, his playing was always true to Bruch's writing - thoughtful and captivating.
Gringolts took the second movement without excessive romantic gestures, but with the greatest sensitivity and poignancy. Tortelier directed a highly sympathetic orchestral accompaniment, with the memorable second theme beautifully played by woodwind and horn principals, and echoed by solo violin.
The violinist's hallmark attention to rhythmic detail came to the fore in the finale. The accuracy in articulation and his total technical mastery made the demanding solo part seem like a comfortable, if very deliberate stroll through the park.
The ballet suite Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky is a very different suite from Ravel's Mother Goose. Composed as a concerto for extended orchestra, the music is written around a story of a Russian puppet theatre at a Shrovetide fair, with the four scenes of the ballet made up of a myriad of short episodes of dance, folk tune and revelry.
Tortelier led the orchestra through the suite superbly. His deft conducting elicited a brighter, more forward orchestral balance, and he gave the multitude of solo parts the room to express their individuality. The orchestra played uniformly well, with Shane Thio (piano), Wang Xiao Ming (violin), Jon Dante (trumpet) and Mark De Souza (xylophone) standing out in their solos.
The conductor's ability to provide distinct shape and colour to all three works was magical. He brought French elegance to the Ravel, was a consummate partner to Gringolts in Bruch, and breathed life into Russian marionettes in the Petrushka Suite.
The May Day weekend saw lighter than usual attendance at this concert, but those in attendance received a real treat.