Divine Debussy and Dvorak

The concert was conducted by music director Shui Lan.
The concert was conducted by music director Shui Lan.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is recording the major orchestral works of Claude Debussy. La Mer, Images, the ballets Jeux and The Toy Box and several concertante works are already in the can.

This concert, conducted by music director Shui Lan, offered some of the French composer's youthful and rarely performed works.

Marche Ecossaise (Scottish March, 1891) received its Singapore premiere this evening. Better known in its version for piano four hands, its sumptuous orchestration highlighted the orchestra's solo woodwinds to good effect.

Rachel Walker (oboe), Elaine Yeo (cor anglais) and Jin Ta (flute) distinguished themselves in this slight, but pleasant, rhapsody on a Scottish modal theme.

Printemps (1887) was considered Debussy's first "impressionist" work and its 1913 orchestration by Henri Busser nevertheless adopted the master's imprimatur. Another rustic modal theme was developed through its two movements, from a hushed and hazy beginning, blossoming like a nascent spring into a dance and through to its rousing close. The orchestra's insightful performance should win it many new friends.

Better known and a staple of the harp repertoire is Danse Sacree Et Danse Profane (Sacred Dance And Profane Dance), which saw SSO principal harpist Gulnara Mashurova backed by only strings.

One of Debussy's most ethereal works, the harp's celestial strains stood out from the sensitive accompaniment, first sounding chaste and formal, before breaking into a freer but no less elegant waltz rhythm. Mashurova's nocturne-like solo encore was just as sublime.

The evening's main draw was Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto In B Minor, with China-born cellist Wang Jian as soloist. Now in his mid-40s, Wang first found fame as the 10-year-old boy who performed in the end credits of Isaac Stern's iconic docu-movie, From Mao To Mozart (1979). It was also with the Dvorak that he made his SSO debut in 1993.

Enduring through the intervening decades was his deeply felt and instinctual response to what is arguably the greatest cello concerto ever composed. This, and his gorgeously hewn tone - fully voiced, plain-speaking, yet so filled with vitality - made for another memorable performance.

What has been shed was the exuberance of youth. In its place was an unspoken, yet palpable, sadness, possibly borne of world-weariness, that permeated its three movements - through the first movement's upheavals, the slow movement's plaintive song and the finale's resolute denouement.

The orchestral partnership was not as sharp as in the SSO's live recording with Qin Li-Wei on Decca Records and there were occasional intonation issues with the French horns. Nevertheless, it was still a gripping reading, culminating in the glorious shared passage with Wang and concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's violin towards the end.

For encores, Wang performed Dvorak's Song To The Moon (from the opera Rusalka), accompanied by full orchestra, before closing with a Chinese melody on his own. The latter's title, Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening), was a perfect summation of the 21/2 hours that had passed so eventfully.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'Divine Debussy and Dvorak'. Print Edition | Subscribe