Reflections upon Strauss’ Metamorphosen in Singapore

SingaporeSingapore Beethoven, Strauss, Mendelssohn: Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor), Kam Ning (violin), Albert Tiu (piano), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore 10.4.2014 (RP)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture, No. 3, Op. 72b
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor


In the waning days of World War II, Richard Strauss wrote: “2000 years of cultural evolution had met its doom, and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed by a criminal soldiery.” The great opera houses of Munich, Vienna, Dresden and others had been reduced to cinders. For the 81-year-old composer, who had been at the apex of German culture for decades, the war destroyed much of what he had held sacred in life.

Metamorphosen, composed just weeks before the war’s end, was the musical expression of his despair. It formed the centerpiece of this concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SS0) under the baton of its principal guest conductor, Okko Kamu. The venue was the newly restored Victoria Concert Hall (VCH). The SSO is fortunate to have at its service two excellent venues, the Esplanade Concert Hall which seats about 1,600, and the VCH seating 600. The VCH with its elegant, Italianate features, was the perfect setting for this concert spatially, acoustically and atmospherically.

The complex counterpoint of Metamorphosen displayed the depth and virtuosity of the SSO strings. Whether performing as soloists or in ensembles, the 23 players played with searing intensity. The violas in particular displayed a complex, rich sound, marked by incisive bowing. Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich’s solos did much to establish the intensity that marked the performance throughout. Under Kamu’s baton, Metamorphosen was transformed into an evocative lament. Silence reigned when the music stopped.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture. The intimate space and vibrant acoustics of the VCH provided Kamu with the freedom to shape phrases that started at almost a whisper and cascaded into a torrent of sound. Jon Paul Dante’s off-stage trumpet calls had an immediacy and vibrancy often lost in a larger hall. The final measures were marred by some uncharacteristic sloppy playing by the woodwinds. But all in all, it was one of the most joyous and thrilling readings of the overture that I have heard.

The Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin and Piano, full of youthful vigor, was an apt choice to close the concert. Violinist Kam Ning and pianist Albert Tiu were a terrific duo and really sank their musical teeth into the piece. Ning has great energy. Capable of spinning lovely, beautiful phrases, she is not afraid to make a harsh sound on the violin. There is an edge to her playing. Tiu seemed to be having a lot of fun, bringing flare and precision to the flashy piano part that Mendelssohn wrote for himself. Not much is demanded of the orchestra, but again there were some sour notes from the woodwinds.

Ning and Tiu offered up Intoxication by the young American pianist and composer John Novacek. It’s a spiky contemporary rag in the spirit of Scott Joplin, perhaps a bit incongruous musically but definitely in keeping with the excitement the duo generated in the Mendelssohn.

Strauss composed Metamorphosen with the destruction that rained over Germany and Austria in the final months of the war weighing on his mind. Cities in other countries, just as rich architecturally and as important culturally, were also destroyed. Singapore itself was not spared, although the VCH was. Much was lost forever, but the opera houses have all been rebuilt. Music of the great German Romantic composers reaches more listeners today than it ever did in Strauss’ lifetime. It was Beethoven’s aesthetic of personal sacrifice, heroism and eventual triumph that prevailed, not the bombs.

Rick Perdian

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