Concert review: Maestro Shui Lan and the SSO have come of age

Conductor Shui Lan conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 2016 during the Prague Spring Festival.
Conductor Shui Lan conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 2016 during the Prague Spring Festival. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

LAN SHUI - 20TH SSO SEASON

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Friday (Jan 13)

Twenty years seems like a short span in the life of an orchestra or that of an orchestral conductor.

The years have flown like a flash since January 1997, when Shui Lan conducted his inaugural concerts at Victoria Concert Hall as music director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

For his 20th anniversary gala, Shui chose to relive the same all-Beethoven programme that opened his tenure. For those fortunate enough to have attended those concerts, comparisons and contrasts make for interesting discussion.

How has the SSO progressed, and how has Shui himself moved on from those heady early years?

The SSO is now a far better ensemble, with significant improvements in all sections. The players have matured as a whole and weaker individuals have been replaced by superior instrumentalists.

It was a gradual process, but new benchmarks were recorded with each passing year.

The evidence was to be found in the Leonore Overture No. 3, from its opening unison note, through its slow introduction that built purposefully to the exhilarating Allegro. Sounding more polished and striding with greater confidence, it achieved a feverish climax with David Smith's excellent offstage trumpet solo, before reaching a totally convincing conclusion.

In Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in G major, the orchestra sensitively partnered the American Nicholas Angelich. His was a big- boned performance, projecting well above the throng and without the jitteriness of the 1997 soloist Seow Yit Kin.

The give-and-take partnership was most apparent in the brief slow movement, poetically described as "Orpheus taming the Furies".

Brusque unison strings were pitted against soothing piano chords here, but the effect was a miracle of transparency, constituting the highlight of the performance.

The finale that followed without break was a joyous romp from start to end, and the applause prompted Angelich to offer the only non- Beethoven music of the evening: the first piece of Schumann's Scenes From Childhood.

The concert's second half was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, taken at the same breakneck speed as in 1997. Then, sleek and lithe readings of the German's symphonies were a relative rarity, sounding almost alien alongside traditional and more stolid interpretations.

Today, Shui's approach is no longer considered radical. The new normal still yielded a thrilling performance, with the familiar first movement setting the tone.

Trimmed of all fat, the Allegro Con Brio was a model of tautness and economy, with neither agogic pauses nor extraneous gestures. Similarly, there was no room for sentimentality in the second movement, which flowed with an inner, quietly raging fire.

The tricky third movement was adroitly negotiated before the glorious finale, an urgent journey from tragedy to triumph.

Clocking in at a few seconds over 30 minutes, this felt like the swiftest and slickest Beethoven Fifth ever. Through its turbulent course, it was, however, never made to feel over-hurried or hectic. Some may disagree with this reading, but the spontaneous standing ovation and prolonged applause suggest that for most, Maestro Shui Lan and his band have indeed come of age.