Concert review: SSO goes beyond its comfort zone by playing American composer Steve Reich

The first of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's new Red Balloon concert series had 40 minutes of Steve Reich's music and around another 40 of music by Bela Bartok. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA


Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Brad Lubman (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (Jan 12)

The first of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO) new Red Balloon concert series - which presents "convention-defying music and genres" - did not quite go according to plan. Instead of the promised 60 minutes of Reich, we had 40 minutes of his music and around another 40 of music by Bela Bartok.

Add to that the concert's late start and two extended on-stage commentaries given to drown out the clutter of major stage reorganisations, and we had a concert which lasted as long as a full-length evening concert.

A part of the plan which did survive was that of taking the SSO beyond its familiar territory of late-19th/early-20th century repertory. The music of Steve Reich may be about the most accessible there is by a contemporary composer and it has already attracted an enthusiastic following in Singapore in the wake of recent visits by high-profile Reich-performing ensembles. The American composer himself came here a while back and performed before a packed and adulatory Esplanade audience.

The two Reich works performed at this concert - Pulse and City Life - make for arresting listening and, as conductor Brad Lubman eloquently revealed, are marvellous pieces of music. Pulse, apparently receiving its Singapore premiere, carried on relentlessly above a pounding bass guitar but lacked any variety of tone or colour, while the famous City Lights, cleverly intermingling sampled street sounds from New York with orchestral effects, managed to sound remarkably ordinary despite Lubman's obvious involvement in the music.

But what emerged most powerfully from these performances was a sense of such intense concentration from the players that one almost expected to see smoke billowing from their ears.

There was plenty of musical smoke wafting around, but that was part of the weird, almost spooky soundscape of Bela Bartok's Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta. The reason for its incongruous inclusion appeared to be that it was written in 1936, the same year that Reich was born. But it was a good choice in that it gave the SSO the opportunity to play something more firmly in their comfort zone.

From the desiccated, eerie viola theme which opens the work to the raucous razzmatazz of the finale, the orchestra was clearly in its element. The percussion section delivered its parts with the flair, dynamism and brilliance we have come to expect of it, while Shane Thio was a rock-solid presence on the piano. Whether or not Aya Sakou was equally adept must remain a mystery - from my vantage point in the balcony, her celesta was totally inaudible.

Only one person seemed uneasy with all this musical fun: maestro Lubman. His rigid, sharply focused beat gave the work a certain militaristic character, but marched right past all the many moments of musical magic with barely a sideways glance.

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