Israeli-born conductor Eliahu Inbal made his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday at Esplanade Concert Hall with just one work on the programme - Mahler's Symphony No. 9. It could hardly be more apt that the concert that this symphony, within which Mahler presaged his death, should be performed on such a tumultuous week for Singapore.
A minute's silence was observed before the concert began to mark the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and when Inbal came on stage he announced that this performance was dedicated to the former Prime Minister.
The opening movement, considered by many to be Mahler's greatest symphonic movement, begins with a hesitant motif in the strings, another played on harp, then a two-note descending theme that reappears throughout the movement. Devoid of any extended melody, the movement works through scenes which interpreters have described as depicting Mahler's irregular heartbeat, youth, life and a funeral procession.
Inbal's conducting was direct and forceful, almost excessive for a movement that calls more for sweeping gestures than dramatic turns. The movement is challenging at the best of times, and the musicians were stretched to blend their parts seamlessly.
Inbal's understanding of Mahler is beyond reproach, and he did much to bring continuity to the movement. But for the first half of the movement, the brass was edgy and the harp sounded detached, though they settled towards the end of the movement.
Excess tension among the musicians had dissipated by the raucous, dance-like second movement. The music becomes increasingly acerbic through the movement, then suddenly transforms into a gentler Ländler, an Austrian folk dance.
Inbal's conducting captured both the Austrian spirit and Mahler's irony, and made this a particularly successful Mahler second movement. This was followed by a brisk rondo third movement that featured strong string playing and an in-form principal trumpet Jon Paul Dante.
Mahler aficionados seem to make it a point to time the duration of the final movement. Such is the variation in interpretation that performances of this expansive movement range from 20 minutes to twice as long. Inbal's tempos felt just right for this evening - brisk but unhurried in the faster sections but slow enough in the final sections to allow the music to breathe.
He directed particularly powerful climaxes at the beginning of the movement, leading into the final section which Mahler marked ersterbend ("dying away"), an extended coda where the strings gradually faded into silence.
There were beautiful solos by concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, principal viola Zhang Manchin and principal oboe Rachel Walker, just to mention but a few, and the horn and string sections impressed throughout the symphony. The most memorable aspect of the concert, however, was how the maestro melded heartfelt sensitivity into a robust reading of a work that dwells on life and death.