Singapore Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Eliahu Inbal (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 28.03.2015 (RP)
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra had long been scheduled to play Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on what turned out to be the eve of the state funeral for Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister. At concert time, the line of people waiting to pay their respects to Mr. Lee stretched from Parliament House, where he lay in state, along the Singapore River, snaked through the Padang (an open playing field in the core of the central business and cultural district) and past the Esplanade Concert Hall. The wait was estimated at times to be eight hours or more. Nonetheless, there was a stillness to the city that evening, as it prepared to bid farewell to Mr. Lee the next day.
As fate would have it, Eliahu Inbal was the guest conductor for this concert. The Israeli-born Inbal has had a long, distinguished career, receiving international acclaim for his interpretations of Mahler’s works, including his award-winning cycle of the complete symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. What one anticipated to be an evening of music making at a very high level was transformed by this convergence of circumstances into an emotionally charged and unforgettable performance of this colossal work.
The orchestra played with great power, as one would expect from the SSO. The quiet passages, done with the intensity and transparency so essential in Mahler, were at times transcendent. The stillness was as powerful as the loudest blaze of the brasses or intense, incisive string playing. There are many solo or chamber music-like passages throughout the work, all expertly played here. It would be a disservice to all to mention any musician by name: the unified whole of the performance was what was remarkable. It was music coming from another world, from eternity, to paraphrase Herbert von Karajan.
This was a Mahler Ninth of great intensity and intimacy. The concentration, effort and, yes, passion of many orchestra members was clearly visible. There was a collective release of tension at the end of each movement. Inbal took a few moments to compose himself before facing the audience after the last sounds faded into nothingness. At the onset, Inbal dedicated this performance to Mr. Lee, stating that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was one of the greatest of symphonies, exploring both the “meaning of life and the meaning of death.” Many words have been written and many more will be spoken in honor of Lee Kuan Yew, but I venture that few will have the depth of emotion and profundity of this performance.