Concert review: SSO and the audience more than ready for Suk's profound work

The works of some composers are almost sure bets for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven seldom fail to draw the crowds.

Joef Suk, student and son-in-law of the great Antonin Dvorak, is not among those composers, and programming his Asrael Symphony - named after Asrael, the "Angel of Death" - for Thursday evening's concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, was always going to have its risks.

Pianist Nikolai Demidenko and Liszt's first piano concerto, on the other hand, are well known and well loved by Singapore audiences. The melodramatic opening bars portended a solid, if unadventurous reading by orchestra and soloist.

Demidenko's stage presence and gravitas were omnipresent, with nicely contrasting contemplative sections and some quirky moments. There were slight chinks in his formidable technique, but soloist and orchestra delivered a very commendable performance, right up to the hard, driving finale.

What was disappointing was the state of the Esplanade's Steinway piano, which sounded harsh and badly out of tune, as it did a week earlier when Albert Tiu performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto.

Josef Suk began composing his Asrael Symphony to honour the Dvorak's death, but before completing it a second tragedy struck - the death of his 27 year old wife Otilie Dvorak. This prompted him to add a final two movements to the first three he had written thus far.

Lan Shui's decision to conduct the symphony took guts and fortitude, as the work is demanding for the orchestra and challenging for most audiences. Devoid of the free-flowing lyricism so characteristic of Dvorak and Suk, the symphony is more akin to a tone poem, with episodes reminiscent of grief, anger, fate, passion and finally reconciliation.

Lan's preparation and hard work with the orchestra paid off handsomely, and the evening's performance was a profound experience. There were excellent solos by guest concertmaster Andrew Haveron, principal timpani, cello and horn. Most of all he provided shape and coherency to the music that made the 60 minutes feel more like 40.

The attendance for the concert was noticeably lower than for recent concerts by the orchestra, but many stayed on after the Liszt concerto. Those who did were amply rewarded with a memorable performance, led by an inspired Lan Shui and a very responsive orchestra.

Pairing the Asrael Symphony with a more uplifting concerto or overture would have been appreciated, but judging by applause, and the sight of tissue and handkerchiefs discreetly used in the hall, the orchestra's venture with Suk's grand symphony was something Singapore was ready for.