Concert started with an ending



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Fox (percussion), Andrew Litton (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

What was going on?

The Esplanade stage was a chaotic, untidy jumble of all manner of weird and wonderful percussion instruments. The conductor's rostrum had been pushed off- centre and the orchestra was squeezed to the back.

When the concert began, it was still a puzzle, for it started with an ending.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) opened with the final moments of Wagner's Ring cycle, a work so gargantuan that it famously takes four evenings to perform in its entirety.

American composer Christopher Rouse's fascination with what happened to the characters after the ending of the Ring, inspired him to follow the fortunes of one of them, the dwarf Alberich, in his work for solo percussion and orchestra, Der Gerettete Alberich.

Excerpts from the Ring cropped up in various guises along the way, resulting in a kind of cut-and-paste Wagner with attitude.

Jonathan Fox, who commandeered the front of the stage, brought it all together in as thrilling a display of musical virtuosity as most of us have ever witnessed.

Strolling without, apparently, a care in world around this astonishing array of hardware, he leisurely drew from his large collection of sticks, hitting just about everything in sight with something approaching finesse.

When Fox eventually sat down, it was at a drum kit on which he launched into a frenzied musical attack so vicious that it took the breath away.

The orchestra, playing for all their worth, stood no chance against this relentless attack not just from Fox, but from four more percussionists who joined in the fray with the instruments Fox could not quite reach; timpani, gongs, cymbals and a huge sheet of metal.

This was a fabulous performance of a fantastic work, and one which will live in the memory long after the ears have recovered from the onslaught.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Rachmaninov's Second Symphony.

The SSO trot this out about once a year. A certain amount of complacency has crept in, for they seemed unwilling to adjust to Andrew Litton's sharply focused and tightly controlled interpretation.

He drove the symphony forward so that its great waves of passion crashed on the shore with the relentless power of great Pacific breakers and the SSO could barely keep their heads above water.

A catastrophe was averted in the last movement only by sheer good luck.

The SSO was making a glorious sound and this, coupled with Litton's searing reading, should have resulted in a once-in-a-lifetime performance. As it was, they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of a spectacular victory.

As one audience member was heard to say as he left the concert hall: "What was going on?"

Marc Rochester

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Concert started with an ending'. Print Edition | Subscribe