05 September 2011

A Farewell to Mozart and the MPO

It breaks my heart that today is the first day when a new concert season begins at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in which I am not involved, as organist, programme note writer, English editor, adviser, announcer or general dogsbody.  I know most people feel that the ship is sinking and it can only be a matter of time before it sinks below the waves altogether, but I have not just a strong attachment with the orchestra - I was there, after all, when it was conceived and have been true to it through all its triumphs and tribulations - but real affection and love for it and its people.  If it is to sink, I want to be there to make its passing as painless as ever.  Long may it continue, however, and I wish all who remain with it a wonderful season - even if for some unaccountable reason it has developed an astonishingly Canadian bent!!

Perhaps fondness for the MPO makes me even more aware of the shortcomings of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  But I have been amazed by their ability to raise their game in recent years, and there have been a few concerts of late when they could easily have given the MPO a run for their money.  When it comes to chamber music, their players (as was shown in a fantastic piano quintet recital last night which featured works by both Amy Beach and Ernest Bloch and which have shot straight to the top of my list of all-time favourite chamber compositions) are very much in a class of their own.  The cracks in their armour are horribly exposed, however, when they can be coaxed away from the big Romantic repertory, and I was profoundly unimpressed by their attempts at Mozart last Friday.

Lan Shui hadn't got the grasp of the style at all.  He danced around on the podium, giving cues and then letting everything run away from him.  We can't ignore the fact that period-instrument Mozart has changed our whole perception of how this music sounds, and while I'm the last person to think that we should ONLY ever hear Mozart on period instruments, I do think that, as Harnoncourt has shown, modern instruments and symphony-sized orchestras can give creditable performances so long as they learn something from the period instrument brigade, perhaps the most obvious being an attention to detail and an awareness of melodic shape.  Lan Shui has some lessons to learn, I fear.

This was my review for the Straits Times;

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday 2 September 2011

Time was when just about every orchestra programmed a Mozart symphony at least once a month, if only to guarantee a full house once every so often.

Mozart hasn't lost any of his pulling power, as the capacity audience at the Esplanade for Friday's concert showed, but performances of his music have been claimed by those specialist ensembles who attempt to recreate the style of the 18th century, and big symphony orchestras fight shy of such refined fare.

The world is plenty big enough for different approaches to Mozart, however, and there was something deeply comforting about the SSO's.  It recalled the halcyon days of mighty, meaty Mozart, full of grand gestures and lavish dynamic colours.  Indeed, the only member of the orchestra who offered up anything remotely stylish was Jonathan Fox whose timpani gave us crisp and impeccably balanced thunderbolts in the 41st Symphony.

Not that the other sections of the orchestra weren't offering up some pretty powerful stuff.  The wind solos had a charmingly rustic feel to them – the trio in the Minuet of the 39th evoking nothing other than a fairground carousel – and the violins were as incisive and unified as anyone could want.  It just did not have an authentic Mozart feel about it, and the only concession Lan Shui seemed to make in that direction was to keep the speeds brisk. 

Actually, that's a wild understatement.  His speeds verged on the ridiculous.

We had a manic Minuet in the 40th and the last two movements of the 39th moved with such extreme rapidity that one wondered whether the forest of microphones that had sprouted up on stage were recording the performance as mood-setting music for the upcoming F1 weekend.  And perhaps it was the wind generated by all those flying violin bows which caused the music to blow off the stands so often.

Lan Shui also had an irritating habit of placing so much emphasis on the first notes of phrases that what followed simply disintegrated.  This wasn't untidy playing, simply a performance which glossed over the detail in the pursuit of overall effect.

No more Mozart symphonies are planned for this season, but I hope it won't be long before the SSO tackles one again; it would be awful if they were to survive on an undiluted diet of Mahler, Sibelius and – God forbid – Goldmark.  But if they are to offer up credible Mozart performances, they will need to do so with a lot more finesse and lot less haste.

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