Having fun conducting and playing the piano



Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton (Pianist/Conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

From time to time, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra pulls in a star pianist who not only plays but also conducts the orchestra at the same time from the keyboard.

Here was a concert where a star pianist did not just conduct the orchestra from the piano, but from, quite literally, all around it.

To add to that, there was no piano concerto in the programme nor a note of Mozart. But, in one of his delightfully informal talks to the audience during the programme, Andrew Litton made the entirely justified claim that, when it came to writing good tunes, Gershwin was every bit Mozart's equal.

Litton was wearing two hats for this concert.

In the first half he was every inch the symphony orchestra conductor, feet firmly planted on the rostrum and hands coaxing great playing from his orchestra.

In the second half, he morphed into a jazz pianist, clearly inspired by the late, great Oscar Peterson (his encore was a Peterson number) and performing music by another great American jazz pianist and composer - one whom he admitted he had long worshipped - George Gershwin.

The Gershwin Songbook comprises 16 hit melodies in cheeky arrangements by Hershy Kay with added spice in this performance from a hefty dose of Litton. Periodically he would break off from walking around the stage and directing the orchestra, to sit down at the piano and burst into flamboyant improvisations aided and abetted by a spot-on jazz combo of bassist Guennadi Mouzyka and drummer Jon Fox.

Some of the SSO strings looked vaguely bemused by this speakeasy, soft-core jazz idiom, but the wind players were having a ball of a time. And when trumpeter Jon Dante and trombonist Allen Meek stood up to add tones of cheesy loveliness to The Man I Love, I could sense that the entire audience had fallen deeply in love with both of these men.

The first half of the concert was given over to two Shostakovich's pieces, more homage than true jazz, but given a real visual sense of the 1920s by the orchestra's standard attire of white tie and tails.

Jazz Suite No. 1 opened with a wind combo (plus violin, banjo, drum and bass) on stage, with Litton showing just how subtle and delicate this instrumental line-up can sound in the right hands.

The big attraction in the longer Suite For Variety Orchestra was the exotic addition to the ranks of a symphony orchestra of the accordion, banjo, Hawaiian Guitar, honky-tonk piano and a quartet of saxophones.

Mozart it most certainly was not, but wonderful, infectious fun it most certainly was.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'Having fun conducting and playing the piano'. Print Edition | Subscribe