Concert review: Philharmonic Orchestra's Debussy tribute concert is insightful and informative

Debussy Tonight!

The Philharmonic Orchestra and The Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

Highly thematic programming has been a hallmark of the Philharmonic Orchestra, and this afternoon concert saw a continuation of the group's partnership with actor-presenter William Ledbetter, narrating as the composer returning to the stage almost a century after his death.

The narration centred around Debussy's drive to break loose of the constraints of traditional musical composition and his struggles to gain acceptance from critics and peers. Ledbetter used all the tricks available - from English spoken with a heavy French accent, to illustrations at the keyboard, to short excerpts by the orchestra - to engage the diverse audience, and he certainly succeeded, even though his first stint was almost as long as the prelude and three songs to come.

Pierre Boulez proclaimed that the opening work, the Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun, marked the beginning of modern music. Lim's band of dedicated amateur musicians has grown in strength and depth, and the work was comfortably within the orchestra's grasp, with strong solos from flautist Terence Teow and harpist Sarah Wong.

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir then presented three chansons (poetry or prose put to music) based on text by Charles d'Orleans, with the orchestra still seated on stage, the chorus standing at stall level in front of the stage and Lim conducting from several rows into the stalls. This unusual placement led to a very pleasing outcome, with the 25-strong choir sounding immediate, clear and more rounded compared to the musicians on stage.

As we have come to expect from Lim, the choir was well rehearsed, and the third song, Winter, You're Naught But A Villain, was feisty and tight, although the accompaniment to contralto soloist Helga Haller's fine solo in Song 2 was wobbly in places.

The final work, La Mer (The Sea), was by far the most demanding work of the evening. As explained by Ledbetter and demonstrated by Lim and the orchestra, Debussy was deeply impressed by the complexity of Javanese gamelan music he heard at the Paris World Expo in 1889, and applied this in the instrumental layering and cross rhythms throughout the three movements.

Lim directed a powerful reading. The musicians maintained good control and layering of sound, with delicate solos from flute, harp and principal violinist Chan Yoong Han. However, parts of the final movement sounded choppier than its name Dialogue Between Wind And Waves would suggest.

Much time must have been put into incorporating the narration so seamlessly with the music, and it was well worth the effort. The approach provided much useful insight into Debussy's musical ideas and inspiration, and Ledbetter and the orchestra are to be commended for a concert that broadened minds while pleasing the ears.

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