A blend of grandeur and nobility

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducting the traditional New Year's Concert 2017 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vienna Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, on Jan 1, 2017.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducting the traditional New Year's Concert 2017 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vienna Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, on Jan 1, 2017.PHOTO: AFP



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Renaud Capucon (violin)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Thursday

The evening's Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) guest conductor, Venezuela-born Gustavo Dudamel, is certainly conductor of the moment, having just directed the classical calendar's premiere opening concert - the Vienna Philharmonic's 2017 New Year's Concert.

His concerto partner was regular SSO guest soloist French violinist Renaud Capucon and, together with an orchestra in good form, they gave this year's local classical music season a resounding start.

Performances of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture can range from scholarly to raucous and Dudamel's approach was a superb blend of grandeur and nobility, fitting of a major academic ceremony.

The SSO's strong brass section was controlled and nuanced without sacrificing flow, making the orchestral climaxes all the more exciting.

Viennese composer Alban Berg was a key member of the "Second Viennese School", which explored daring new compositional techniques, including the use of all 12 notes of a scale without reference to a "root" key. His Violin Concerto, his last completed and most performed work - composed in memory of the 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of the widow of Gustav Mahler - melds this approach with the diatonic system which had been in extensive use up to this time.

Having previously performed Mozart, Brahms and Glazunov concertos with the orchestra, Capucon has come to be loved by SSO audiences for his singing tone, flawless intonation and highly romantic interpretations.

Applied to the two movements of Berg's concerto, which broadly represent the life, death and transfiguration of Gropius, Capucon's evocative, introspective interpretation was a wonderful match to the music.

Only in the explosive opening minutes of the second movement did his violin tone seem to lack some bite, but as the music moved into the slow ending section, with the clarinets playing a chorale based on classical harmonies used by J.S. Bach, his expressiveness shone through, bringing the concerto to a poignant ending.

Dudamel was brought up on the famed Venezuelan El Sistema youth music programme and continues as music director of the project for the 18th year. Much of the adventurous, pioneering spirit of El Sistema was to be seen and heard in his no-holds-barred performance of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, From The New World.

The SSO has performed the symphony on many occasions, but there was clearly an extra dose of adrenalin in its playing - from Christian Schioler's dramatic timpani entries to strong solos by Marc-Antoine Robillard (horn) and Jin Ta (flute), and the melancholic, plaintive second movement cor anglais solo by Elaine Yeo.

Dudamel spends much time conducting opera and the dramatic tempo changes in the opening movement and the Wagnerian approach in the final movement reflected this.

This performance of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony might not have been fully to the taste of listeners expecting a more Bohemian approach to the work of the Czech master, but Dudamel's energy, imagination and ability to bring the best out of musicians are obvious, and his appeal irrepressible.

Just as he has done with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and the best orchestras around the world, this evening, he brought something very special to the performance with the SSO.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'A blend of grandeur and nobility'. Print Edition | Subscribe