REVIEW / CONCERT
Joshua Bell and Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Superstar American violinist Joshua Bell's much-awaited return to Singapore culminated with two performances of Chen Gang and He Zhanhao's evergreen Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, partnering the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung.
Two separate audiences got to witness the spectacle in Esplanade Concert Hall last Thursday and Singapore Conference Hall the evening after.
That he truly mastered the work, technically and idiomatically, was not unexpected.
After all, the concerto was originally conceived for the Western violin and symphony orchestra in an attempt to create a piece that resembled Romantic-era violin concertos audiences so yearn for.
Although popular melodies from the Beijing Opera were the basis of its themes, billions of listeners have enjoyed it as a Western-style showpiece with Chinese characteristics.
Bell was not even the first non-Asian violinist to attempt it here. Another American, Gil Shaham, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, directed by Shui Lan, recorded it more than a decade ago, with the coupling of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
The only difference here is the use of Chinese instruments as orchestral backing, in an arrangement by Yan Hui Chang and Ku Lap Man.
What stood out immediately was the beauty of Bell's tone, gorgeously crafted and sonorously projected, contrasted against a backdrop of accompanying huqins.
Every phrase was immaculately voiced and the feeling of fuzzy warmth, so typical in musical Romanticism, was gratefully lapped up.
He even played in the tuttis, blending in with the orchestra, and the accompaniment was always discreet, allowing his voice to shine.
In the tender duets with cellist Xu Zhong, there was much sympathy and synchronicity.
A spontaneous standing ovation was the result and an encore of Western art imitating the East in Fritz Kreisler's tongue-in-cheek Tambourin Chinois.
Bell was made to work hard earlier in the evening, with commanding solos in Saint-Saens' Introduction And Rondo Capriccioso and Sarasate's Gypsy Airs, all staples in a virtuoso violinist's repertoire. What truly touched the heart was a seamlessly gilded reading of Massenet's Meditation from Thais, accompanied by strings, light winds and harp.
Bringing this memorable concert to the two-hour mark were purely orchestral works which began each half. Three movements from Tan Dun's Yellow Earth were a joyous but raucous celebration of the inhabitants from the Huangtu Plateau with percussion, solo suona, suona chorus and vocalisations from orchestral members leading the way.
In Guo Wen Jing's Ava Mountain from Dianxi Folk Tunes, a vigorous tribal beat from China's south-western ethnic minorities dominated, with the piquancy of zhonghus and dizis spicing up the mix.
Although the audience had been reminded that a live recording was taking place, there remained an inconsiderate minority who ignored the need to stifle coughs or noisily unwrapped sweet wrappers. One hopes that the Sony Classical album that results will have only sweet music, not noise.