Concert review: Sibling revelry on display in SSO's performance of living composers' works

A DANGEROUS LIAISONSingapore Symphony OrchestraVictoria Concert Hall/Friday

It is a rare occasion when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs a concert of works by living composers, even more so when three of the works come from the 21st century. Even though it was not titled as such, the SSO's 36th Anniversary concert (usually one of the first concerts of the new year, and one featuring soloists from within the orchestra) conducted by music director Shui Lan was a celebration of the present. And the “present” of classical music is not as gloomy or as atonal as one might have imagined.

The earliest music dates from 1995, three Dances from Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades, once hailed as the whiz kid of British music and successor to Benjamin Britten's legacy. Strongly influenced by jazz, the Overture, Dance and Finale, conceived as a suite in 2007, harked back to the smokey dance halls and dives of the 1930s when the opera's scandal-rife heroine the Duchess of Argyle held court. Sexy clarinet duets and muted brass, supported by jazz band vibes dominated the action, which swaggered from a saucy tango, slow waltz to a final somewhat tipsy stagger.

Altogether more serious was American composer Michael Hersch's A Sheltered Corner, a horn concerto written for his elder brother Jamie Hersch, associate principal hornist in the SSO. Playing for over half an hour and in nine connected sections, the work alternated between violent upheavals and moments of quiet contemplation. Particularly interesting was the aural relationship explored by the French horn and grouped cellos, seemingly diverse instruments but sharing warm and burnished sonorities.

Amid the busyness of orchestral manoeuvres, Hersch's horn emerged as a voice of calming reassurance while not engaging in dizzying flights of fantasy. His long held notes sustained a wealth of emotion, its inner secrets not privy to mere casual listening. Far longer than the usual horn concerto (most run under 20 minutes), this was more than a taxing physical and mental workout for Hersch, who performed seated throughout. The generous applause was commensurate with his efforts.

The temperature cooled for young Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi's Rain Tree, a work that has gained tremendous mileage having already been performed in Tokyo and Baltimore. Beautifully scored and proportioned, its local subject took on the colours and scents of impressionism, hinting of Debussy but drifting eastwards to Takemitsu. 

Textures in its three movements were light, gentle and pleasing to the ear. Snatches of solo violin, flute and cello wafted up like aromatic fragrances in Breeze, while pointillist pings from harp, marimba and vibraphone suggested the droplets of Rain, which coalesced into a brief monsoon drizzle. The quasi-minimalist rustle of Leaves and the sun shining through the clouds provided a satisfying conclusion to a work that repays repeated listening.

Sibling revelry, not rivalry, defined the Concerto For Two Cellos by leading Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. SSO principal cellist Ng Pei-Sian was joined by his twin brother Pei-Jee, who is based in London, in dual virtuoso role as soloists. Their parts mirrored and echoed each other, so intertwined as to be inextricable, and breathing as one through its 20 minutes. Their chemistry was unspoken, but always keenly felt, not least in the work's quieter sections, when the duo was lightly accompanied. 

Through the storms and stresses, the voices were undimmed, culminating in a dazzling cadenza before dashing off in a final burst of primal energy. The Ngs' encore was just as extrovert, Courting The Dragonfrom Big Story by Uzbek-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin written for them in 2007. Loud cheers and a standing ovation was ample proof that new music, performed with passion and conviction, holds the power to entertain, enthuse and enthrall.