13 February 2015

Blue Dazzlers

(Concert Review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra "Pops" Concert held on 13th February in Singapore's Esplanade Concert Hall)

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Rhapsody in Blue was conceived as a crossover piece; an experiment to see what would happen if the popular music of the New York dance halls of the 1920s was combined with the classical music of the concert hall.  The result was an immediate success, and the work quickly established itself as a "classic" of the 20th century. 

Which is a shame since, with such "classics" being revered and respected by musicians and music-lovers to the extent that they are treated as unarguable musical truths, Gershwin's original notion of a crossover work has been somewhat forgotten over the intervening 90 years. 

That is until Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone came along and decided to discard all performing conventions and take the piece back to its crossover roots; this time combining the jazz of the contemporary club scene with the conventions of a formal orchestral concert.  His performance dispensed with just about everything Gershwin wrote in the piano part, replacing it with extraordinary improvisations, some of which worked spectacularly well and some of which fell flat on their face.  Never mind that, it was a breathtaking display both of pianistic virtuosity and musical risk-taking.  A gorgoeus horn solo from Jamie Hersch was the only noteworthy non-piano element in a performance which was so focused on Ozone that one rather forgot the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was also present on stage.

That, though, may have been a good thing.  Opening their concert with Jeff Tyzik's homage to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, the SSO clearly were way out of their comfort zone.  Sitting dispassionately, dutifully following the letter of their printed scores and maintaining a strait-laced demeanour (not a smile, not a glimmer of enthusiasm to be seen), the string players did what they had to, and no more.  Thankfully the SSO brass are a more extrovert bunch and the trombones, in particular, showed that, if nowhere else in the orchestra, this music was in their blood.

It all should have come together in the Gershwin Piano Conerto which closed the concert. Conductor Joshua Tan had prepared his interpretation with considerable thought, revealing a perceptive and intriguing approach to a score which, for many of us, is so familiar as to be regarded almost as a personal possession.  The staid old SSO strings, happy to do what their music told them, played with neatness and a certain degree of conviction, while the wind simply enjoyed everything that Gershwin put their way.  For the first movement, Ozone buckled down manfully to his task (dressed now in sober black and white to show he was in serious mode, as opposed to the sensuous blue of the first half), indulging in fairly coherent dialogue with the orchestra.  Things started to go pear-shaped with the second movement.  An awesome - there is no other word for it - opening trumpet solo (I don't think I have ever heard this done better) seemed to be all the excuse Ozone needed to go off-piste with a rambling improvised cadenza, more Errol Garner without the groans than George Gershwin, and with that it all went to his head.  Musical caution and respect for Gershwin's painstakingly drafted score were thrown to the wind with two gargantuan cadenzas - one, unfortunately, the twin brother of one of the improviesed insertions in Rhapsody in Blue - taking us into musical realms a world away from 1920s America. 

Programming the two Gershwin works together was a huge mistake; one of those ideas which looks great on paper yet does not work in practice.  What we had, in effect, was Rhapsody in Blue times two, and I don't think Mr Gershwin would really have approved.  We in the audience did, however, for, musical integrity aside, this was as dazzling a display of pianistic pyrotechincs as anyone could wish for.  No wonder it received a spontaneous standing ovation from the excited and excitable audience.

1 comment:

  1. sorry to disagree, the trumpet solos were abysmal!

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