04 November 2017

One Orchestra. Two Conductors. A World of Difference

Andre Previn memorably tried to show on his 1970s Saturday evening TV programme about orchestras that without a conductor on the rostrum, even the best orchestras would soon fall apart.  His demonstration fell rather flat; when he walked away from the rostrum, the orchestra carried on just as well without him. 

But Previn was working with the London Symphony, and they were (and are) one of the best orchestras in the world.  His experiment would have worked better with a less accomplished orchestra; one which needs a conductor not just to keep them together but to inspire them to make music rather than play their instruments around the same time.

It did not exist then, but today's Singapore Symphony would have been a rather better choice than the LSO of the 1970s.  However, the vital role a conductor plays has never been so vividly demonstrated as it was last week with two very different concerts given in the same concert hall by the SSO.

Last weekend they gave a concert under Kristjan Järvi, and it was pretty dreadful.  On Wednesday they gave a different programme under Pavel Baleff, and it was spectacular.  The change which came over this orchestra was not down to repertory, personnel or rehearsal time; it was purely down to conductor.

Most musicians know and respect the name Järvi.  It is one of the great conducting dynasties of our time.  Its patriarch, Neeme, is one of the great conductors of our time.  His son Paavo has also carved out a pretty impressive conducting career.  Paavo's young brother, Kristjan is following along in their footsteps.  But whatever conducting skill he possesses, it certianly was not sufficient to inspire in the members of the SSO anything worth listenign to.

Few musicians outside his native Bulgaria and the city of  Baden-Baden, where he is chief conductor, have heard of Pavel Baleff (two years' Kristjan Järvi's senior).  Yet he inspired the SSO to heights they have seldom before attained (I certainly have never heard them play better).  It can only be the conductor, with just five days between the two concerts, such a magical transformation from listless meandering to incisve focus can not have occurred for any other reason.  I reviewed both concerts for the Straits Times and reprint my reviews below.  It still seems hard to believe that this was one and the same orchestra.

The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) Kristjan Jarvi (conductor)
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (27th October)
It was difficult to identify any coherent thread running through this programme other than a sense that nothing was quite as it seemed.  A piece about China was Estonian, music described as Egyptian was actually French and a thoroughly German opera was given a makeover by a Dutchman who took out all the words and removed the singers.
Kristjan Järvi, the youngest member of the famous Estonian musical dynasty, not only conducted the concert but composed the concert opener.  Intended to portray his favourite Chinese city, the odd assemblage of capital letters in the title - ShANgHAi Wonder - made it look more like a chemical formula.  The odd assemblage of trite and derivative musical gestures did nothing to dispel that impression.
Making a welcome return to Singapore, Jean-Yves Thibaudet sailed breezily over the phenomenal technical difficulties of Saint-Saens’ Fifth Piano Concerto.  Composed during a cruise down the Nile, this has ever since been called “The Egyptian”.  Thibaudet must have been wondering whether he, Järvi and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were all on the same boat for today’s musical journey.  
Jarvi’s hand often strayed from the tiller, and the orchestra was left floundering around, wondering which direction to take.  The charming oriental melody in the second movement from the piano and the clever gamelan-type effects from the orchestra came as little moments of solid ground in an otherwise wobbly performance.  Luckily, Thibaudet took command of the final movement and brought it into harbour with enough panache to get the audience clamouring for more.
All orchestral percussionists relish a challenge, and Dutchman Henk de Vlieger is no exception.  Responding to a challenge thrown down by his conductor in 1992, he set out to distil the 15 hours of music in Wagner’s epic four-part Ring Cycle into a single, hour long concert work. The result - The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure – splices together all the big tunes from the original, cutting out the action, the voices and the boring bits.
Buoyed up by four harps, a fistful of French Horns and Wagner Tubas, and a veritable battery of percussion including a weighty profusion of anvils (which sounded uncannily like the inside of a clock museum around midday) the SSO threw themselves at this luscious score with enormous enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, so did Järvi, and the ensuing lack of discipline led to some horribly scrappy moments – the worst being a general silence just before the final ecstatic apotheosis which was anything but silent.
Against this, however, there were marvellous, unforgettable moments.  The Magic Fire Music positively shimmered with intensity, and the woodwind bird calls against dreamily murmuring strings were simply captivating. 
Best of all was Siegfried’s stirring horn call brilliantly delivered by Han Chang Chou in what must be, for me, the most memorable single musical moment of 2017.  Which was just as well.  Much of the rest of this concert I would prefer to forget.  This was not the SSO’s finest hour.

A Night At The Opera
Diana Damarau (soprano), Nicolas Teste (bass-baritone), Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Baleff
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (1 November)

This was a gala concert aimed at opera lovers, and they certainly got their money’s worth.  But if, by some astonishing error of judgement, somebody had turned up expecting a normal orchestral concert, they would surely have left this marathon session feeling equally satisfied.

A combination of two marvellous singers, an orchestra on absolutely cracking form and a conductor whose direction was nothing short of inspirational, made this a night to remember.
Pavel Baleff may not be a household name, even among classical music aficionados, but his conducting inspired the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to a level of excellence they rarely achieve and which, one suspects, surprised even them.

Clear, precise, economical with gesture and with a commanding presence which ensured this programme of 16 individual items flowed seamlessly, Baleff laid his cards on the table at the very start with an incisive and immensely musical interpretation of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture.  The dynamics, ranging from a whimpering whisper to a thrilling thunder, were perfectly measured for maximum effect, and the controlled precision of the playing was marvellous to behold.
Even more impressive was the famous Dance of the Hours, which got the audience screaming with enthusiasm.  The Prelude to the Flying Dutchman did much to restore the SSO’s Wagner credentials after last weekend’s wobbly efforts.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Teste has a voice full of rich, opulent darkness and, compelling as he was in King Phillip’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlos, he really came into his own in Mogst du, mein Kind from The Flying Dutchman.  His austere, monumental vocal presence seemed ideal for the night after Halloween.
The concert’s headline act was Teste’s wife, the soprano Diana Damrau.  The whole programme was a testament to her intelligent and imaginative approach, drawing on arias which were not necessarily what we might have expected, but which brought together genuine musical interest with lavish opportunities to display her remarkable vocal powers

The usual suspects in any operatic soprano recital were there – Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville, Je Veux Vivre from Romeo et Juliette and, of course, Sempre Libera from La Traviata  – as well as relative rarities – from Bellini and Meyerbeer. 

On all of these Damrau put her own unique stamp, effortlessly filling the hall with a voice which had such physical presence that it was like being drawn into a warm, colourful and intense embrace.  Add to this the occasional pirouette and a great deal of expressive hand action, and everything was transformed from being an operatic aria into a vivid and compelling character portrait.  This was singing of a quality few in Singapore will have experienced at first hand before.

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