Challenge summiting Beethoven's Triple Concerto



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton (piano/conductor), Igor Yuzefovich (violin), Ng Pei-Sian (cello)

Esplanade Concert Hall / Last Friday

Most top conductors shy away from performing as soloists, but the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO) principal guest conductor, Andrew Litton, is not one of them.

He performs regularly on the piano as a concerto soloist and in chamber concerts, as was the case in tonight's performance of the convivial Beethoven Triple Concerto, partnering with SSO concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and principal cellist Ng Pei-Sian.

Conducting from the piano, Litton's use of a tablet as his electronic score seemed like a great idea, until he fell victim to Murphy's law. Thankfully, he directed and played his solos seamlessly through the first movement and was able to reboot his foot pedal controller before starting the second movement.

The orchestra opened with hushed whispers from cellos and bass. Ng made the first solo entry with full confidence. He played with great commitment and expressiveness, although there were a few lapses in intonation, no doubt exacerbated by the need to match the volume of the orchestra and piano, and his nursing a week-old hand injury.

Yuzefovich was an excellent partner to both cello and piano, carrying his solo lines most musically and acting as associate conductor when Litton was too busy with his piano part to direct.

The piano was played without its lid, which gave Litton a full view of the orchestra and his solo partners on either side of him. This also brought a nice bonus of clarity and warmth of tone, sometimes lacking from the Esplanade's Steinway piano. Litton played with the ease of a seasoned jazz pianist and his part was handled effortlessly.

Yuzefovich and Ng have performed so many orchestral solos and chamber works together that their familiarity with each other's styles was clear. They may have been separated on stage by the piano, but sailed through their tandem parts with precision.

The Triple Concerto has a reputation as an Everest among musicians. Even with a well-prepared orchestra and strong direction and playing from Litton and his two excellent partners, perfection was elusive. Yuzefovich and Ng had the inevitable challenge of matching Litton's sound on the Steinway and the orchestra sounded somewhat detached from the solo group.

The musical rapport among the soloists was never in question though. In the touching encore of Stephanie Ann Boyd's Lullaby For Sophie, freshly minted for the recent birth of Yuzefovich's first child Sophie, they attained wonderful balance and showed exquisite musical partnership.

Litton explained that the version of Copland's Symphony No. 3 played this evening was a Singapore premiere of a new 2015 edition, in which twelve bars that Leonard Bernstein had omitted in a 1947 performance, without the composer's permission, were restored.

Few guest conductors are better placed than Litton to conduct the SSO in what is considered one of the greatest American symphonies. It celebrates the great American post-war spirit of optimism and echoes the composer's Americana style of orchestral ballet music, as heard in his Rodeo, Billy The Kid and Appalachian Spring.

Litton directed a reflective opening movement. Well controlled and shaped, it lacked only the sense of limitless space and distance that Copland's music evokes. This was followed by a more flowing and jubilant second, with hints of jazz swing in the raucous syncopated sections.

The free-form, slow third movement was followed without pause by a lightly reworked version of Copland's immediately recognisable Fanfare For The Common Man, tautly performed in its full glory without the Bernstein cuts.

In his second concert as principal guest conductor, Litton's intent to connect with the SSO's principal musicians and to share his love for great American music was evident and well appreciated. The performances of the Triple Concerto and Copland's Third Symphony were not beyond reproach, but the concert reaffirms the sense that his partnership with the SSO is one that will bear great fruit for the future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Challenge summiting Beethoven's Triple Concerto'. Subscribe