Concert review: SSO already at ease in first concert at the newly renovated Victoria Concert Hall

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performing officially for the first time at the refurbished Victoria Concert Hall on July 15, following its four-year restoration. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performing officially for the first time at the refurbished Victoria Concert Hall on July 15, following its four-year restoration. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The question at the top of the minds of all present at this first concert at the newly renovated Victoria Concert Hall (VCH) must surely have been: "How does it sound?" In brief, it sounded very good and there is every reason to believe that it will sound even better in the months and years to come.

Kelly Tang's short Capriccio For Orchestra was commissioned for this opening. Highly listenable and colourful, as is typically the case with Tang's music, it had perhaps too many ideas fighting for attention in the five minutes of the work.

First impressions of the SSO playing in the new acoustic were positive, with excellent support for basses and woodwinds, good clarity and even tone balance.

Four SSO principals, co-leader Lynnette Seah on violin, Ng Pei-Sian on cello, Rachel Walker on oboe and Zhang Jin Min on bassoon were soloists in Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante. This was a late work by Haydn, written for a fairly large orchestra, and conductor Shui Lan and the soloists took an elegant, Mozartean approach to the work.

The very first soloists in the reborn VCH were in fine form, and Seah's handling of the operatic recitative sections in the final movement was excellent.

Technically, the soloists played very cleanly and the balance was good, although there seemed to be a touch of tentativeness and holding back by Seah, Ng and Walker. In contrast they sounded much more open and free in their solo parts in the Brahms symphony.

Brahms' first symphony, with its wider tonal spectrum and dynamic range, was as an ideal work for the SSO to perform in the hall.

The orchestra's previous performance of the work under conductor John Nelson at the Esplanade was warm and characterful. Tuesday's performance was its equal, with Shui leaning towards a more brisk and robust reading.

In VCH, the winds were able to find excellent balance and much improved intonation. Strings were sweet, with the basses relishing the hall's transformation from one that sucked out the lowest notes to one that is a joy for bassists.

The element that was lacking was the cosseting warmth of concert hall reverberation, something the Esplanade Concert Hall provides in spades.

The SSO played with real passion and precision, but a truly satisfying symphonic experience also needs the sense of space and time that comes from the natural reverberation a great concert hall provides. The superb solos by horn, principal violin, oboe and flute and the dramatic final chords of the Brahms would have benefited much from greater reverberation from the hall.

The acoustic consultants and venue management have shared with this reviewer that it will take months, if not longer, for the optimal acoustic balance to be achieved.

In terms of the lifetime of a concert hall, that is a mere blink of the eyes. It took months for the SSO to begin to master the size and acoustics of the Esplanade Concert Hall, and years before it sounded truly at ease in that hall. On Tuesday, they already sounded very much back home at the VCH.

Given how wonderful the venue looks and feels, and the quantum improvement in tonal balance and acoustic support for musicians, Singapore's Grand Old Dame of concert venues has what it takes to become a great concert hall for all but the largest orchestral works.

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