Vivid orchestral playing lacks human touch



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Jin Ta (flute), Yu Long (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Yu Long is clearly a conductor for whom beating time is not so much an occupational obligation as an overriding obsession.

He propelled the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) along with a regularity of beat and a rigidity of pulse which would have been the envy of any Swiss clock-maker.

Only when Jin Ta appeared on stage with a couple of colleagues before the interval and leisurely introduced his jazz-infused ensemble encore, did the concert have a moment where driving momentum was put, briefly, on hold.

Before that, the concert got off to a rip-roaring start with Prokofiev's fabulous Suite from The Love For Three Oranges. A characteristic of Prokofiev's orchestral writing is that nothing stays in the same place for long.

Melodies start up in one section of the orchestra, leap over to another and, before one knows what is happening, they jump over to yet another. Yu's unwavering beat ensured that all this melodic shrapnel fell properly into place, even if odd notes were dropped by the wayside.

Pushing these six short pieces onwards with barely a pause for breath, Yu inspired some fantastically vivid orchestral playing. And while he may have swept a lot of the ingrained humour aside, he still gave it plenty of deliciously unsentimental irony.

It might have been his way of doing things, or simply poor programming, but despite half the orchestra going off stage after the Prokofiev in order for the crew to reset for the Concerto, when the musicians came back, it seemed as if they were just picking up where they had left off.

Stepping right on the gas, Yu pressed headlong into Ibert's Flute Concerto, determined not to allow sentimentality to disrupt his iron- clad beat. Luckily, when it comes to technique, Jin Ta has it by the bucketload and he polished off the dazzling virtuoso passages in the relentlessly paced outer movements without breaking a sweat.

What was missing, however, was any feeling of interpretative personality.

As a soloist, Jin Ta never emerged from the shadow of the orchestra of which he is an embedded member. It was left to concert master Igor Yuzefovich to provide that feeling of musical individuality when, in his second movement dialogue with the flute, he produced playing of sumptuous beauty. After the interval came Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

Yu was still revelling in metronomic certainties, but here, his approach yielded some thrilling results. The second movement, driven along with riveting intensity, ended on a moment of high drama, while the glorious climax of the fourth had an electrifying impact.

If the performance had felt a little more human and a little less mechanical, this could have been something very special indeed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'Vivid orchestral playing lacks human touch'. Print Edition | Subscribe