On Saturday evening, the very popular French violinist Renaud Capucon, regular guest soloist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. As always his violin tone was rich and buttery, but his crisper bowing and less rubato were well chosen for a concerto from the classical period.
Capucon's ample technique made easy work of the the brisk tempos chosen for the outer movements, and the SSO's ability to sustain the tempos with precision was admirable. Conductor Lan Shui's direction of an elegant, but slightly drier reading of the orchestral accompaniment was excellent, working well to allow the soloist to shine.
Mozart does not have to be saccharine sweet and predictable, and Capucon's more sparing use of vibrato and a novel, almost avant garde cadenza made it memorable. In the final movement he again provided additional excitement with the use of ornaments and extemporisation, something that would have been commonplacein Mozart's time. A tiny niggle was his choice of starting trills on the lower note, which felt at odds with music of the period, but it did not detract from a brilliant performance by soloist and orchestra.
The Mozart concerto was sandwiched between two late works by Debussy - both written for ballet and completed not by the composer, but others on commission by his publisher, Durand.
It was heartening for the concert to begin promptly, breaking a trend of delaying concert starts by up to 10 minutes. However Lan's opening beat to Debussy's music for Khamma was held up by the protestations of a restless child, one of at least two in the hall, leading one to question the Esplanade's consistency in applying their own admission policies.
Khamma is based around a story of sacrificial dances and Egyptian mythology, and it appears that Debussy did not have the heart to complete its orchestration due to disagreements with the dancer Maude Allen who commissioned the music. The resulting orchestration bears more resemblance to music accompanying silent movies, with the liberal use of musical clichés. The orchestra in turn did not seem very convinced by music, nor the ballet script, which was projected on two video screens to either side of the stage.
In the case of La Boite à Joujoux (The Toy Box), Debussy was very motivated to complete the orchestration from his piano score, but was unable to because of ill health and his eventual death. A complete contrast to Khamma, the colour and imagery in the music made the projected script redundant, and even a distraction, and the orchestra's response to the music could also not be more different.
The piano has a major role throughout the piece, and pianist Lim Yan was superb in his portrayal of the whimsical playfulness that marks the work. Elaine Yeo's portrayal of a shepherd's pipe on cor anglais (English horn) was beautifully plaintive, and Jin Ta's flute and Rachel Walker's oboe were perfect fits to Debussy's music.
Lan and the orchestra performed the lighter and very accessible music in the form of the ebullient Mozart concerto and Debussy's delightful Toy Box with distinction. This is a welcome complement to some of the heavier programmes heard this year. It brings variety and freshness in a culture that sometimes seems to believe that "serious" classical music needs to be bombastic and challenging.