Dvorak Cello Concerto
Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Pavel Baleff (conductor)
Esplanade Concert Hall Thursday (Nov 22)
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) chose to celebrate St Cecilia's Day (the patron saint of music) with an all-Dvorak programme. Dvorak himself, a profoundly religious man, would doubtless have been touched by this, even if it the significance of the date seemed to have passed the SSO by.
Nonetheless, there was a tangible sense of celebration and festivity about the hall, reinforced by a boisterous and excitable, if somewhat unkempt, performance of the Carnival Overture. Possibly taken too fast for the orchestra to keep itself perfectly in step, it still provided a pleasingly rowdy opener for the capacity crowd.
There could have been many reasons why music lovers attended this SSO concert, but the evening's soloist was probably the irresistible draw for most.
The SSO's star cellist, Ng Pei-Sian was clearly both inspired and deeply moved by the reception he got both from his orchestral colleagues and his large fan-base in the hall. The result was a performance of the Cello Concerto, which was seething with passion and boiling with emotional turbulence.
Ng gave it his all, rapturously bursting in with his first solo entry, caressing the gorgeous theme of the central movement like an intense lover, and joining in with gusto the dances of the finale before his moment of deep introspection, which reduced him to tears, and got the audience exploding with admiration.
It was probably just as well that Romanian conductor Pavel Baleff did not try to tame things or put the orchestra under any kind of restraining leash. This was above all an emotionally-charged performance, which overflowed with so much expressiveness that the rough edges were effectively smothered.
Throughout the concert, Baleff's speeds veered rather disconcertingly from extreme to extreme. But if nothing else, he inspired the SSO to throw off their inhibitions to the extent that, at times, they rather left him behind as they rushed off chasing their next big moment. This relatively hands-off approach from the conductor turned the performance of the ubiquitous New World Symphony from the potential such a popular work has for sounding routine (after all, the SSO give it an almost annual work-out) into something which had an edge-of-the-seat sense of adventure.
Dvorak wrote the Symphony in New York and was inspired by the sights and sounds of America, all of which were quite novel and strange to him. It was this sense of awestruck amazement that Baleff brought to the Symphony and, indeed, to this entire concert. Saint Cecilia might not have approved of such earthy pleasures, but everybody in the audience most certainly did.
Correction note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of conductor Pavel Baleff and the orchestra of cellist Ng Pei-Sian. We are sorry for the errors.