Eclectic works and brilliant playing prove a treat



Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Jan Vogler (cello)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar and German cellist Jan Vogler are no strangers as guest performers with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). At this concert, their collaboration with the SSO gave the audience a highly satisfying performance of lesser-known works by Antonin Dvorak and Dmitri Shostakovich, and a dramatic premiere of a piece by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen.

Such was the nature of the evening's programme that conductor Kalmar felt compelled to say a few words of introduction before the start of the performance. His passion in presenting works that are less often performed is well known and the warmth and wit with which he engaged the audience did much to set the stage for the scintillating music-making to come.

Prangcharoen, 44, is acknowledged as one of Asia's top composers, having won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Barlow Prize for Composition in 2013. His 2004 composition Phenomenon, subtitled "the mysterious and unexplained", was inspired by the annual Naga Fireballs or Mekong Lights, a phenomenon on the Mekong River that occurs at the end of the Buddhist Lent season.

As befitting an event where glowing red balls erupt from the calm river, Phenomenon opens with a deafening cacophony of percussion, quietens to an eerie calm and goes through this cycle again until tranquillity prevails.

A work such as this could have simply been an exercise in the use of sound effects, but Prangcharoen's vision and skill created an exciting, colourful and highly successful opening work for the concert.

Kalmar and the SSO certainly played their part, with great energy and commitment juxtaposing against ethereal strings in the quiet passages.

The Shostakovich Cello Concerto of the concert title turned out to be the rarely performed but still worthy Cello Concerto No. 2, written seven years after the ubiquitous No. 1.

Less extrovert and darker, the work opens with the cello playing an austere solo melody. This grows in intensity and liveliness, but the movement never discards its introspective undertones.

Vogler produced beautiful tone with strong projection throughout, allowing his cello to soar above the accompanying woodwinds and xylophone.

While Shostakovich's cello part provides the soloist every chance to show his virtuosity, the orchestral parts are no less demanding. The SSO's woodwinds, horns and percussion were in superb form and the seamless partnership between Volger and the orchestra led to a very strong performance.

The change in orchestral colour that Kalmar brought in the Symphony No. 6 by Dvorak was most impressive. The influence of Brahms is evident in the first and last movements, but Dvorak's Czech lyricism is ever present. With this, Kalmar drew a warmer sound from the orchestra that was ideal for the work.

From the opening work to the final notes of the symphony, Kalmar directed the SSO with precision and spontaneity, bringing out the best in the music and the musicians.

In his third appearance as guest conductor with the SSO, he has hit a home run with his eclectic programme going down a treat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2018, with the headline 'Eclectic works and brilliant playing prove a treat'. Subscribe