Spano in Singapore – Earthbound Strauss and Celestial Holst

SingaporeSingapore  Strauss, Holst: Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore 08.05.2014 (RP)

Strauss:  Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Holst: The Planets, Op. 32


The low C that opens Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra took the audience by surprise. It was a primeval sound dominated by the rumblings coming from the organ above. It was a good beginning, but the dawn motif which immediately follows was marred by tentative playing from the trumpets. Robert Spano mustered a thunderous crescendo from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to bring the opening section to its climax, but the opening bars were indicative of what was to come. There were moments of brilliant sound and thundering fortes, but this was a reading of the Strauss tone poem that never quite gelled.

Two factors were at play. First, the augmented woodwind and brass sections were missing a couple of their principal players. Their absence was apparent both in terms of sound and precision. The other was Spano himself. Much of the time he was just keeping time with his baton, rather than shaping a performance. Those ascending lines that are so important in Strauss’ orchestral music were earthbound. Some were cut off abruptly, in fact stillborn. The SSO strings however, got it right. At their best in the penultimate section, a joyous waltz, they were at ease throughout with Strauss’ stylistic demands. This was due in no small degree to the leadership of Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, whose solos were the epitome of elegance.

Post-intermission, the opening bars of The Planets revealed a completely different Spano and the orchestra responded in kind. He was animated, totally engaged and attentive to detail, leading a nuanced, exciting performance of this audience favorite. The opening movement, “Mars, The Bringer of War,” was marked by driving intensity. Yuzefovich’s solos were again a highlight, matched by those of Han Chang Chou, the SSO’s Principal Horn, in “Venus, The Bringer of Peace.” Brass, woodwinds and percussion did yeomen’s work throughout, but once again it was the strings that shone. In “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity,” the melody known as the English patriotic hymn, “I vow to thee, my Country,” soared – spacious, full and rich – a string sound that stirred the soul.

This was not a flawless performance however. Coming after the drama and excitement of the first four movements, “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” is a contrast both in mood and orchestration. It was the only section in which the performance faltered, at times lacking focus and clarity. And where was the woman’s chorus that Holst called for and was mentioned in the program notes? The organ was an adequate substitute, but with the number of talented singers in Singapore, a woman’s chorus could have easily been assembled. The Esplanade Concert Hall offers many opportunities for sonic special effects with its multiple levels and behind stage spaces. It was an opportunity missed to exploit the hall’s fine acoustics, let alone to honor the composer’s wishes.

Spano was generous in acknowledging the orchestra members, reluctant to take a solo bow. After the third or fourth return to the stage, he walked through the orchestra shaking hands and embracing the principal players. Overall it was one of the rare uneven nights for the SSO this season, but that beautiful string playing is still lingering in my ear.

Rick Perdian

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