Singapore Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Rihm: Mira Wang (violin), Jan Vogler (cello), The Philharmonic Chamber Choir of Europe, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore 14.11.2015. (RP)
Debussy: Jeux; Nocturnes
Saint-Saëns: La Muse et le Poète, Op. 132
Rihm: Duo Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra
An unseen hand guided those who arranged the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s season for 2015. On three occasions, programs set months in advance have proven to be profound responses to events both local and international. In March, it was Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which became an impromptu and extremely moving tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister. Stephen Hough’s haunting The Loneliest Wilderness, composed in part as New York City’s World Trade Towers were reduced to dust, was performed just days before the 14th anniversary of 9/11. And with the world reeling from the news out of Paris, a concert primarily devoted to French music was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in the French capital the previous evening.
Jeux, Claude Debussy’s last symphonic work, is ballet music. While episodic, there is little discernible structure to the piece, and pulses instead of rhythms propel it forward. Its quiet introduction yields to colorful and often delicate passages, enlivened towards the end by the sprightly playing of duo piccolos. Two harps add to the intricate wash of color and texture. Lan Shui conducted a controlled, shimmering performance, remarkable for its transparency. The games captured were not those of tennis or love, which Vaslav Nijinsky evoked in his original staging of the ballet, but rather of the vagaries of human existence.
Saint-Saëns described La Muse et le Poète as a conversation between two instruments, its quiet, melancholic opening yields to a plaintive melody for the violin which reoccurs throughout the short work; while gaining in intensity, it always retains its charm and elegance. Singapore is accustomed to fine cello playing, but the sound from Jan Vogler’s 1707 Stradavari Castelbarco/Fau was uncommonly rich and warm. Moments of repose, often coming after impassioned playing by violinist Mira Wang, were hauntingly beautiful. La Muse et le Poète ends triumphantly, and the SSO did not disappoint.
This was the Asian premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Duo Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra, following two performances in the USA and a subsequent one in Germany last month. The work was a joint commission by the SSO, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra based in New York City, and the Dresden Music Foundation of Germany on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the reopening of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, restored 50 years after being reduced to ruins by aerial bombings in the waning days of World War II. Rihm himself has said that the work is “a musical tribute to international reconciliation.” The Asian premiere was intended to mark 50 years of diplomatic relationship between Germany and Singapore. A reviewer’s comments on a work that resonated on so many levels are inconsequential. Suffice it to say that no one is likely to experience a more impassioned performance of this riveting, challenging new work any time soon.
With Debussy’s Nocturnes, the evening ended with one of the composer’s most beautiful orchestral creations. Inspired by the paintings of the American artist James McNeill Whistler, the three movements evoke clouds, festivals and the call of the Sirens across the waves of the sea. The second movement, Fêtes (Festivals), provided the concert’s one outburst of joyful exuberance, but within the scale of restraint and refinement of the prior works. The SSO’s woodwinds reveled in the marvelous music that Debussy provided for them in Fêtes, with the solo passages for flute, oboe and English horn vividly dispatched. The 16 women’s voices of The Philharmonic Chamber Choir of Europe were forthright, rather than alluring, in the Sirens’ song. It was fitting that the timeless, unceasing rhythm of the orchestral waves of sound provided a soothing conclusion to the concert.
Concerts commemorating the events of November 13, 2015 (and there will certainly be some) will likely yield to nationalistic impulses or include weightier works, deemed appropriate to the occasion. These, and while I hesitate to deem them so, less loftier compositions served their purpose perfectly. Saint-Saëns, that most French of composers, was torn between traditionalism and innovation. Debussy felt no such restraints and succeeded in depicting in music what the French Impressionist painters had captured with their brushes. These impulses changed the way we see the world. There can be no greater honor paid to France, than to extoll its culture in such dark days.