Concert review: Symphonie Fantastique, Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Jean-Claude Casadesus, conductor; Valeriy Sokolov, violin

Esplanade Concert Hall, Last Saturday

Sex. Drugs. Decapitation. Debauchery. Not the sort of thing you would expect at an average Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) concert.

But this was by no means an average SSO concert.

For a start, the orchestra produced such compelling music- making played with such vibrant colours and generally exuded such complete self-assurance that one wondered what had come over it.

The answer was conductor Jean- Claude Casadesus who, with characteristic Gallic flair and elegance, coaxed it to do amazing things.

The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery are part and parcel of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, a musical picture of a drug-crazed artist, erotically imaging his beloved in situations ranging from the stylish - the second movement ball was the most compelling waltz you could imagine - to the downright violent - rarely has the guillotine blade fallen with such aplomb as in the fourth movement's march to the scaffold.

Casadesus re-interpreted what were, when the symphony premiered, outrageous orchestral effects, creating the same vividly compelling images of shock and horror which had so appalled the Parisian first night audience in 1830.

Singaporeans in the 21st century are, however, rather more sturdy than 19th-century Parisians and, far from appalled mutterings, there were unabashed cheers.

There were few hints of the amazing things to come with the concert opener.

The Brahms Violin Concerto started in a very straitlaced manner, Ukrainian star violinist Valeriy Sokolov the epitome of undemonstrative elegance. Perhaps his clean-shaven approach was not fully matched by a certain muddiness in the SSO, but the concertgoer can put that down to the inevitable unease which always goes with the start of a big concert.

How it transformed itself during the first movement cadenza.

The master of the subtle nuance, Sokolov drew the audience into a world of profound intimacy and deep discretion, and when the orchestra soothingly re-emerged from its lengthy slumber, it was to produce playing of the most divine delicacy.

In the deeply lovely slow movement, Casadesus moulded and caressed the music as if with the seasoned hands of an expert masseur and, all too soon, the audiences found themselves led out of the massage parlour by Sokolov and into the invigorating atmosphere of a Hungarian dance hall for the finale.

Crisp and exhilarating, he led concertgoers in a scintillating dance right up to the work's ultimate climax.

That alone would have been well worth the cost of the ticket. The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery which followed were just very welcome add-ons.

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