The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's debut concert in Singapore on Tuesday was a late addition to its East Asian tour, and because of the unavailability of the Esplanade Concert Hall, it had to be held in the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands. There are reasons why symphony orchestra concerts are not held at the MasterCard Theatres. This event may be summarised in four words: terrific orchestra, terrible acoustics.
But first, the audience stood to attention for the opening works conducted by the orchestra's music director for life, Zubin Mehta. Zubir Said's Majulah Singapura in Phoon Yew Tien's arrangement was followed by Hatikvah (The Hope), Israel's national anthem. Both were greeted with heartfelt applause.
When Mozart's Symphony No. 36, nicknamed the Linz (after the Austrian city), came on, the artificial boosting of certain sections of the orchestra started to play havoc on the ears. This was no fault of the players or the conductor who strived to give an honest account. Instead of hearing a homogeneous sound, amplified woodwind and brass with added reverberation emanated from the giant speakers on either side of the stage.
Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is an ideal showcase for touring orchestras, and in terms of passion and virtuosity, the orchestra did not disappoint. The sense of cohesion, tightness of the ensemble, and the 78-year-old conductor's magisterial approach to tempos and dynamics contributed to a stirring performance. All this, of course, had to be filtered through the morass of unnatural sonority, which included extraneous noises of microphones being accidentally knocked.
At a post-concert reception, conductor Mehta thanked his hosts and expressed the hope of the orchestra returning to play in a "better hall". Although the event to commemorate SG50 was well-meaning, this humiliation of sorts was a corollary to the state of the pitch in the Sports Hub, another big question mark as to whether we know the true meaning of being "world class".
Classical concerts in Marina Bay Sands should not be like shopping for mobile phones in Sim Lim Square, where one is likely to be short-changed.