Concert review: SSO rises to the occasion at the BBC Proms

The SSO performed at the BBC Proms, conducted by Shui Lan (right, in front) with Andreas Haefliger(left, in front) on piano. -- PHOTO: BBC/CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU
The SSO performed at the BBC Proms, conducted by Shui Lan (right, in front) with Andreas Haefliger(left, in front) on piano. -- PHOTO: BBC/CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU

This year's BBC Proms features a host of international orchestras, from Beijing to Istanbul, Iceland to Melbourne, presenting concerts as diverse as the cultures they represent. Thirty five years might seem a long time to build up to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's debut Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night, but orchestras with much longer histories than the SSO are just making their Proms debuts this year, and others are still awaiting their elusive invitation.

The SSO's tour programmes typically include a substantial Romantic symphony, and true to form, its music director Shui Lan selected Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 - a substantial and challenging work, paired with a new work for piano and orchestra by American-based Chinese composer Zhou Long.

The 98 musicians and Shui may be excused for taking some time to overcome jet lag and warm to the occasion, but none was needed. Shui's brisk reading of the Overture to Russlan And Ludmilla was handled with aplomb by the strings, and the orchestra sounded remarkably at ease from the first beat of the baton.

The overture was followed by the European premiere of Zhou Long's Postures For Piano And Orchestra, a co-commission by the BBC Proms and the SSO, with Andreas Haefliger on piano. The composer admits to regarding the piano as a highly percussive instrument, and in his Postures he juxtaposes a percussive piano with animal gestures from the martial art of Kung Fu. Fortunately what could have been a banal caricature was thoughtfully crafted into three coherent movements - Pianodance, Pianobells and Pianodrums.

The piano part was written with Andreas Haefliger in mind, whose ability to switch from driving percussion to shimmering keyboard runs was most impressive. Shui and the SSO were equally empathetic to the dramatic orchestration, with the percussion section relishing the Peking Opera "Monkey" rhythms in the final movement. Parts in the second movement which called for the pianist to strum on the piano string like harp felt a little contrived, but the work fully engaged the near capacity audience, who rewarded it with warm, appreciative applause.

For a relatively young Asian orchestra to take on Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, an intensely emotional and demanding work, takes gumption, but orchestra and conductor were up to the challenge. The opening movement was carefully shaped and layered, followed by a impressively tidy second movement. The achingly beautiful slow movement is always a favourite of audiences, but it was the pure joy that conductor and orchestra exuded in the finale that will be remembered.

Shui's direction of the hour-long symphony from memory was exemplary - intelligent, subtly nuanced and well shaped. He was matched by an orchestra in sizzling form. Every player, every section without exception gave of their best, with principal clarinet, cor anglais, and percussion and horn sections deserving special mention.

The small contingent from Singapore present to support the SSO's Proms debut included the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, National Arts Council CEO Kathy Lai and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia. They must have been delighted with the SSO's performance. The broader Proms audience - the concert drew a capacity audience of 5,500, many of whom would never have heard the SSO before - were no less enthusiastic about the excellent performance.

In response Lan and the orchestra obliged with a suitably English encore, a march by William Walton, A History Of The English Speaking Peoples - a clever touch, well appreciated by the knowledgeable audience. After tonight, this reviewer expects that the SSO will find herself back at the Proms sooner rather than later.