Taking risks along the safe route

To mark its 15th anniversary, The Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting all nine of Beethoven's symphonies.
To mark its 15th anniversary, The Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting all nine of Beethoven's symphonies.PHOTO: ANDREW BI



The Philharmonic Orchestra, Lim Yau (conductor)

Lee Foundation Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts/Last Saturday

To mark its 15th anniversary, The Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting all nine of Beethoven's symphonies. It will take eight months, five concerts and five different concert halls.

It embarked on the journey this weekend in the comfortably proportioned but aurally unprepossessing Lee Foundation Theatre.

Any conductor planning a journey through such frequently performed repertory has two choices. Either to go down the safe route, giving the audience something comfortably familiar, or to take risks and challenge the audience to view the music in a new light.

Lim Yau gave us a bit of both.

With a hint of the radical, he decided to start the Symphony cycle with the Fourth rather than the more chronologically obvious First or audience-pleasing Fifth (they perform the First in Concert Four in October and end the journey with the Fifth on New Year's Eve).

But radicalism stopped there. This was a safe and undemanding performance, solidly grounded in the comfort of rich and hefty orchestral playing.

Indeed, with no fewer than eight double basses on stage - along with the cellos and first violins, the largest section of the orchestra - this was not so much solid as elephantine.

Even some fairly brisk speeds were not able to lift the orchestral feet off the ground. And when, in the final bars, the double basses roused themselves into a frenzy, it had the frightening physicality of a monstrous rampage.

As a performance, the Seventh Symphony was very different.

With Lim on the podium, the playing may never be slick or polished to a clinical sheen, but it has vivid communicative zeal and unflagging energy. And here the orchestra produced something very good indeed.

There was raw vitality helped along by some cracking speeds (the second movement's Adagio bowled along as if running before a stiff breeze) and there was a strong sense of purpose sustained even during the long breaks between movements as the timpanist retuned his pair of antique kettledrums.

Impressively crisp violins, virtuoso wind playing - notably from the bassoons - and some truly spectacular playing from a pair of horns resulted in a wonderfully invigorating and exciting performance.

Even the crowd of double basses bunched up on the side of the stage like so many night-club bouncers were light enough on their feet to join in the fun and what had been elephantine in the Fourth Symphony became almost nimble in the Seventh.

In its rawness and seat-of-the- pants impetuosity, this performance did not so much force us to look at the Seventh Symphony anew as recreate some of that fizzing freshness which must have gripped the audience at the Symphony's first performance way back in 1813.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Taking risks along the safe route'. Print Edition | Subscribe