Exquisite strumming saves the day

Guitarist Milos Karadaglic shows his command of the instrument amid poor programming and arrangements



Milos Karadaglic (guitar), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Carolyn Kuan (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Thursday

With a pre-concert talk, the composer's detailed programme notes and a 15-minute illustrated lecture by the conductor at the start of this concert, one could have been forgiven for thinking that we were in for some difficult music.

The concert opened with Liquid Interface by Mason Bates. With its plethora of percussion, pre-recorded and electronically created sound effects, rock beats and echoes of 1920s jazz, it proved to be nothing more than 25 minutes of pure American kitsch.

Composed in 2007, this was its first performance in Singapore.

It is to be earnestly hoped that it was also its last.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra seemed to play it well enough and certainly got through it without visible embarrassment, but the players must have been wondering whether it had been worth all the effort.

Rehearsal time might have been better spent on the other big American orchestral work in the programme.

When Rachmaninov composed his Symphonic Dances, he had been living in exile in America for many years and he intended the work as a gift to the American people, to an American orchestra and to an American conductor.

They did not like it at the time, but it has long since earned its place as one of the 20th century's great orchestral showpieces.

American-based conductor Carolyn Kuan seemed quite out of sympathy with the work and, for much of the time, the orchestra seemed unsure quite where she was leading them. There was a moment in the first dance when things got decidedly shaky, but the SSO is no stranger to the work and survived to reach a suitably exuberant finish, coming out of it battered and bruised, but with all guns blazing.

Between these two great slabs of American orchestral colour came guitarist Milos Karadaglic.

Eschewing the usual concerto, he elected to play a handful of pieces in some remarkably poor arrangements for a guitar and symphony orchestra.

Sugar-coated string chords did nothing to beautify the hugely popular Spanish Romance. Despite this, Karadaglic performed it exquisitely.

He also turned out a fiery Fandango by Boccherini in spite of grotesquely over-inflated orchestral backing. By some quirk of the hall's acoustics, by a misjudgment in setting the guitar's amplification or because of Kuan's heavy suppression of the orchestra, much of the orchestral detail in the slow movement of the Fantasia para un gentilhombre was swamped by the guitar, leading to some awkward moments between soloist and orchestra.

But Karadaglic, who is not dubbed the Hottest Guitarist in the World for nothing, showed an obvious joy in playing.

His endearing stage persona and his marvellous command of the instrument - best conveyed in a spirited account of Piazzolla's Libertango - soon won the audience over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2018, with the headline 'Exquisite strumming saves the day'. Print Edition | Subscribe