American conductor Robert Spano, conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 14 seasons and Director of the famed Aspen Music Festival since 2012, had no concerto on his programme with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening, but two substantial orchestral works, inspired by philosophical and astrological thinking.
Richard Strauss' tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (thus spoke Zarathustra), was composed as a homage to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who had authored a book by the same name.
This music is best known for its use in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, but beyond the familiar sustained organ pedal note and trumpet theme that signals the dawn of the world, Strauss has composed over thirty minutes of brilliantly orchestrated music around Nietzsche's "world riddle" - a search of the meaning of life.
There was some unsteadiness in the trumpet section at the opening, but this was soon made up with sparkling playing, in tandem with other wind colleagues who were taut and tuneful. Spano's reading of the nine sections was exceptionally coherent throughout, and he led with authority while allowing solos to flow freely.
The overall balance was bright, though, and an occasional reining in of the brass and piccolo would have added to the excellence of the performance.
Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's solos in the Dance Song and the final section, where he was ably joined by co-concertmaster Lynette Seah, were beautiful. It was a pity that the fine closing was marred by what seemed like a stuck organ pedal note that Spano had to cue off before receiving warm applause for the piece.
The Planets by Gustav Holst began as strongly as Strauss.
Spano directed Mars, The Bringer of War, Venus, The Bringer of Peace and Mercury, The Winged Messenger with great vigour and precision. It was in Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity when there he seemed to lose the plot, allowing the strings, horns and timpani to sound war-like and not at all jovial.
The well-loved melody in the middle of this movement was too insistent and breathless to sound English. Uranus, The Magician suffered a similar fate, with Spano making the orchestra sound more menacing than magical.
Notwithstanding these reservations, The Planets was a success, and the hearty applause that followed showed great appreciation for the performance.
The healthy size of audience is a signal that there are concert goers who will attend a concert that has no major concerto and celebrity soloist. Those who attended were rewarded with a concert where Spano and the SSO played with plenty of heart, but on this occasion perhaps a touch too much spirit.