Adventure best forgotten

REVIEW / CONCERT

THE RING - AN ORCHESTRAL ADVENTURE

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Kristjan Jarvi (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday


It was difficult to identify any coherent thread running through this programme other than a sense that nothing was quite as it seemed. A piece about China was Estonian, music described as Egyptian was actually French and a thoroughly German opera was given a makeover by a Dutchman who took out all the words and removed the singers.

Kristjan Jarvi, the youngest member of a famous Estonian musical family, not only conducted the concert, but also composed the concert opener. Intended to portray his favourite Chinese city, the odd use of capital letters in the title - ShANgHAi Wonder - made it look more like a chemical formula. The piece's odd assemblage of trite and derivative musical gestures did nothing to dispel that impression.

Making a welcome return to Singapore, Jean-Yves Thibaudet sailed breezily over the phenomenal technical difficulties of Saint-Saens' Fifth Piano Concerto. Composed during a cruise down the Nile, this has since been called "The Egyptian". Thibaudet must have been wondering whether he, Jarvi and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were all on the same boat for the musical journey.

Jarvi's hand often strayed from the tiller and the orchestra was left floundering around, wondering which direction to take. The charming Oriental melody in the second movement from the piano and the clever gamelan-type effects from the orchestra came as little moments of solid ground in an otherwise wobbly performance.

Luckily, Thibaudet took command of the final movement and brought it into harbour with enough panache to get the audience clamouring for more.

All orchestral percussionists relish a challenge and Dutchman Henk de Vlieger is no exception. Responding to a challenge thrown down by his conductor in 1992, he set out to distil the 15 hours of music in Wagner's epic four-part Ring Cycle into a single, hour-long concert work.

The result, The Ring - An Orchestral Adventure, splices together all the big tunes from the original, cutting out the action, the voices and the boring bits.

Buoyed by four harps, a fistful of French horns and Wagner tubas and a veritable battery of percussion including a weighty profusion of anvils (which sounded uncannily like the inside of a clock museum around midday), the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) threw itself at this luscious score with enormous enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, so did Jarvi and the ensuing lack of discipline led to some horribly scrappy moments - the worst being a general silence just before the final ecstatic apotheosis which was anything but silent.

Against this, however, there were marvellous, unforgettable moments. The Magic Fire Music positively shimmered with intensity and the woodwind bird calls against dreamily murmuring strings were simply captivating.

Best of all was Siegfried's stirring horn call brilliantly delivered by Han Chang Chou in what must be, for me, the most memorable single musical moment this year.

Which was just as well. I would prefer to forget much of the rest of this concert. This was not the SSO's finest hour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Adventure best forgotten'. Print Edition | Subscribe