Bright start for SSO

Yang Tianwa.
Yang Tianwa.

The programme for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO) first concert this year was eclectic in the best possible sense.

It included a world premiere, a popular concerto and music by two composers whose music is not often performed on the same evening. It was also the SSO's strongest opening concert for any year that this reviewer can recall.

Commissioned by the SSO for its 2016 European tour, the piece titled of an ethereal symphony, by Singapore's preeminent young composer Chen Zhangyi, reflects the inner confidence of the country's new generation of composers. No longer feeling bound to fuse Eastern elements to Western forms or borrow from traditional melodies of the region, their music is now more individual and less predictable.

Prominent in the piece by Chen is the use of the upper registers in the flute and violin sections, which suggests scenes and emotions beyond this realm and evokes rather than informs.



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra

    Shui Lan - conductor, Yang Tianwa - violin

    Esplanade Concert Hall

    Last Saturday

He also confidently blends tonality with dissonance and it will be intriguing to hear the larger symphonic work that he has conceptualised, within which this six-minute gem sits.

Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto In E Minor is well rooted in romantic tradition and China- born violinist Yang Tianwa's (above) performance of it was as well-rounded as one could ask for. She plays with a beautifully fluent bow stroke and razor-sharp focus and she was partnered by a very polished, warm-sounding SSO.

The opening movement was taken at a comfortable, almost relaxed pace but this did not detract from the musical excitement. Yang upped the tempo and energy in the last movement, threatening to lose the orchestra at one point, but the concerto ended cleanly.

Her Mendelssohn was already very impressive, but her two generous encores were staggering. The two movements from Eugene Ysaye's solo sonatas were technically impeccable and immensely musical and the solid performance left the audience buzzing throughout intermission.

The suite to Richard Strauss' popular comic opera Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight Of The Rose) is replete with Viennese waltzes ranging from the elegant to rambunctious and interwoven with episodes of operatic drama, all of which were captured with panache by conductor Shui Lan and the SSO.

The orchestra, which already has an enviable reputation for its playing of Strauss' work, raised the bar again with this performance. Shui's firebrand direction remained, but the orchestra was able to respond with greater ease. The orchestral balance was also excellent and the solos by concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and principal trumpet Jon Dante displayed finesse.

The waltz theme continued with Ravel's outlandish reinterpretation of the dance in La Valse. It is not clear whether the brooding undertones and dramatic gestures in this piece were influenced by the composer's experience of war and the death of his mother, and interpretations of the work vary widely in performance.

Shui's gutsy, emotional reading could not have been more different from conductor Zubin Mehta's suave, but slightly lacklustre reading in performance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the same venue last Thursday. Those in the audience who caught the earlier concert and wondered how the SSO would fare on the same work were surely delighted with what they heard.

This evening's concert is a testament to the huge strides that the SSO, under Shui's leadership, have made in recent years. Even more encouraging is that it marks a positive step towards the SSO defining its own orchestral sound and performance style. This was a landmark performance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'Bright start for SSO'. Print Edition | Subscribe