Strong end to SSO's season



Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

This concert brings to a close the 2016/2017 season of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), a season that featured a host of notable guest soloists and ended with a powerful performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann.

The SSO's commitment to new music has been exemplary in recent years and young local composer Jeremiah Li's Senbonzakura Gossamer Shrouds The Tal is the latest commission. Senbonzakura is "a thousand sakura petals" and Li refers to the music depicting the petals descending gently onto Mongolian plains ("tal").

Li revels in the use of soundscapes and dissonances, and Shui Lan and his musicians did well to evoke the scenery. His orchestration was imaginative, with the clever use of wood blocks and a bowed glass rod to create unexpected timbres, but some parts grew more dense than the gossamer shrouds and gentle fluttering suggested by his own programme notes.

Shui maintained very fine sound and mood throughout. It appears that having spent almost three years in the renovated Victoria Concert Hall, conductor and orchestra have adjusted to the hall and the SSO's tone and balance were excellent all evening - warm, vibrant and never harsh.

There were two concertos, the first of which was the Sinfonia Concertante For Clarinet, Horn And Bassoon by Swedish-Finnish composer Bernhard Henrik Crusell, who was born a few years after Beethoven. The three-movement concerto was a perfect vehicle for the three longstanding wind principals of the SSO to share the stage.

Crusell was an able clarinettist and this was reflected in the prominence given to the instrument, but the solo parts demanded playing of the highest virtuosity and Ma Yue (clarinet), Han Chang Chou (horn) and Zhang Jin Min (bassoon) played as only great musical friends could. There was a special poignancy to this performance, as it was Zhang's final one as principal bassoon of the orchestra, capping a distinguished career that spanned three decades.

As fine as the performances were in the first half, neither the Crusell Sinfonia Concertante nor Li's Senbonzakura are highly memorable pieces and it seems unlikely to this reviewer that they will appear on an SSO programme in the foreseeable future.

Beethoven's Violin Concerto, on the other hand, is a work that seems to weather repeated outings, especially in the hands of a musical giant such as Zimmermann.

Shui's opening section of the concerto was characteristically brisk and business-like. Zimmermann was equally direct, even pushing the tempo further. The slow second movement was similarly straightforward, but without any loss of emotion or beauty. The final movement brimmed with energy.

All the music could just as well have been presented at the Esplanade Concert Hall, but playing it in the more immediate acoustic of the Victoria Concert Hall brought the soloists and orchestra closer to the audience and the SSO's concert season to a happy ending.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline Strong end to SSO's season. Subscribe