Shaham takes a bow

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Shui Lan (conductor), Gil Shaham (violin)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Just four days into 2014, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra opened its series of concerts marking the 150th birth anniversary of Richard Strauss, in a programme spanning late 19th century to 2013 that would be challenging for any orchestra returning from December break.

Alban Berg's Lyric Suite is a six movement work for string quartet, secretly dedicated to the wife of a successful industrialist, and Berg orchestrated three of the movements for string orchestra. Written in his teacher Arnold Shoenberg's 12-tone technique, the three movements give no quarters to weaknesses in string technique or interpretation.

Conductor Shui Lan had prepared well, and the strings were well up to the challenge. Between the lyrical and emotionally charged outer movements was a restless scherzo, employing a range of string effects evoking the impression of myriad swarms of flying insects which provided welcome contrast. The violins shone with well-prepared phrasing and characterisation. In contrast, the violas sounded bland and half-hearted in interpretation.

Bright Sheng's Concerto For Violin And Orchestra, Let Fly, was co-commissioned by the Detroit, London BBC and Singapore Symphony Orchestras, with Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham performing all the premieres. The three main movements of the concerto are performed without breaks, and the mode of composition sees most of the orchestra largely alternating with, rather than accompanying, the soloist.

The solo lines are largely along Han Chinese and other Chinese folk lines, providing Shaham freedom to impress his style on Sheng's writing, especially in the cadenza between the second and third movements. The orchestral tuttis were a mixed bag though, sometimes sounding more at home in a gladiator movie than with Shaham.

The clear star of this work was Shaham, who produced a very generous, sublime violin tone and brought Sheng's violin themes to life.

Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra certainly played their part in the success of this performance, although one wonders if this work is destined to become another niche, East-meets-West concerto.

The six movements of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) reflect the composer's life and musical struggles. Scored for an orchestra of heroic proportions, with eight horns, five trumpets, four oboes and more, it has demanding solos for almost all instruments.

Two musical heroes stood out clearly in this performance: Shui used the concert hall acoustics brilliantly and crafted a coherent tonal landscape, leading an in-form orchestra through the colourful episodes most tastefully, never overdoing tempo or dynamics. Specially gratifying was the evenness of performance from the winds, with all sections performing strongly.

For recently appointed concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, the extensive, demanding solos in Ein Heldenleben must have felt like a baptism by fire. Never flashy, he demonstrated full command and finesse in his solos, and would surely have convinced his fellow musicians and audience present that he was an inspired choice to lead the orchestra.

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