Motley crew in harmony

REVIEW / CONCERT

SCHEHERAZADE - KARI KRIIKKU

Kari Kriikku (clarinet), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lim Yau (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday


To bring Arabs, Jews, a Czarist naval officer, a Soviet-era communist and Mr Bean together in the same place, at the same time and in perfect harmony, might seem an impossible feat. But an eccentric bit of programme planning did just that.

On paper, programming two similarly proportioned works, each with a prominent solo part, looked like a classic example of sugaring the pill of a new work by pairing it with a popular piece from the repertory.

Popular as it might be, Lim Yau pushed, pulled and squeezed Scheherazade so much that it required all of Igor Yuzefovich's considerable prowess on the violin to maintain any kind of narrative thread.

As he weaved around some eccentric tempi, it seemed as if Lim was thinking more of composer Rimsky-Korsakov's experiences as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy than the sultry Scheherazade's weaving tales of love and heroism for her Arab lover.

Certainly, the final movement felt more like a hornpipe danced on the slanting deck of a ship breasting turbulent seas, than the exotic bustle of an Arab souk.

In stark contrast, Lim's grip on Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola's Clarinet Concerto was as firm as iron. And it needed to be.

Launching straight into an overwhelming maelstrom, the concerto's cacophonous opening verged on the chaotic. Yet, Lim's rock-steady beat and phenomenal playing from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra not only averted chaos, but also created a thrilling, electrifying and truly stunning tour de force.

Two of the more endearing moments came with a delicate quotation from the 15th Symphony of Shostakovich (here is the Soviet-era communist) and an affectionate parody of a modern jazz ballad. But such was the dizzying succession of conflicting musical ideas in this astonishing work that interest never palled for a second.

Among the notable heroes of the night were timpanist Christian Schioler and tubist Hidehiro Fujita.

The real hero, of course, was Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, for whom the concerto was written in 2001.

Possibly the longest and, certainly, the biggest clarinet concerto in the repertory, it would be hard to imagine any other player bringing it off so effectively.

For not only does Hakola's concerto call for an astonishing level of sustained virtuosity and an enormous flexibility of tone, but it also calls on the player's dramatic flair.

Kriikku has all of these in abundance. Virtuosity and flexibility shone through the first three movements, but it was in the fourth - an outrageous evocation of a Jewish wedding - that the audience experienced in full his taste for the theatrical.

With legs which seemed as elasticated as Mr Bean's, Kriikku achieved the seemingly impossible feat of simultaneously dancing, shouting, shuffling around the stage and playing breathtakingly virtuoso passagework on the clarinet.

This may have been an eccentric concert, but it was a dazzlingly brilliant one.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Motley crew in harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe