THE FLYING INKPOT (SINGAPORE)|
October 15, 2002
by William Beh
Along with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern and Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, the London Philharmonic Orchestra must surely be one of the hottest events at Esplanade's Opening Festival. Tickets, we hear, were all gone within days of going on public sale. And why not? As one of the earliest groups to perform in the Festival, they could be expected to really give the state-of-the-art Concert Hall a real workout.
The Singapore Symphony's pre-opening Trial and Orientation performance on August 7th didn't really do anything than to demonstrate how unready they were for the new venue - although guest conductor Tateo Nakajima did lead the orchestra that evening in a smashing rendition of Smetana's Die Moldau (among a rojak of other items that included Schubert 5 and excerpts from Beethoven 9). The official inauguration of the hall on October 11th was even more of a curate's egg: a by-invitation-only junket for the rich and well-connected (despite the trumpeting avowal that "Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay is a performing arts centre for everyone.") Even the best of intentions needs a bit of compromise sometimes, I guess.
But it was everyone, it seemed, who turned up for the London Phil. The night's audience, despite the absence of stipulated dress code, was a well-lacquered lifestyle bunch - ties and gowns were de rigeur, it seemed, in the unspoken, self-imposed fetish for dressing up that an infrequent bourgeois concertgoer might feel appropriate to the occasion. Certainly, the Esplanade is out to make a difference, from the way the ushers in smartly tailored uniforms greet you at every step of the way, to the humungous plasma screens hanging in the lobbies, to its no-nonsense policy on latecomers (no admission until suitable breaks) and cutoff age (six years old).
That said, there were still enough kids young enough to be not yet born when Bruckner's Seventh was last performed here, which gave me cause to fear the worst. How many of the audience were here simply because of the LPO "name" (and couldn't get tickets for last night), and how many were here genuinely for the rare opportunity to hear Bruckner? How would they survive 60+ minutes of non-stop Teutonic Romanticism? Apparently, the audience from the previous night had applauded their way through all the movements of the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky!
But the concert started off with Beethoven's nascent First Symphony. Kurt Masur, last here in 1998 with the New York Philharmonic, adopted a fairly middle-of-the-road reading (maybe a bit on the leisurely side) with his trademark moderate tempi. What was remarkable (even though I'd fully expected nothing less) was his immaculate attention to detail on all fronts - the broad arcs of phrasing and the individual highlights on individual notes, as well as the the dynamics, the nuances of emphasis on different sections and the clean, transparent timbre of the classical-sized ensemble.
Insofar as the hall acoustics was concerned, it had a warm (four-second) resonance not unlike, say, The Snape, Maltings. The woodwind passages in the second movement, for example, acquired a glowing nimbus, as did the smallish string section. There was a clever rubato at the beginning of the last movement, before Masur propelled the music forward with animation and character. All in a superlative day's work for the good maestro, I suppose.
Needless to say, the big kahuna of the evening was Bruckner's 65-minute leviathan, coming after the break. With a greatly enchanced orchestra, including the famous quartet of Wagner tubas (on top of five horns), it promised to be something quite special - and it was. From the shimmering, scarcely audible string tremolando of the opening, it was clear that communion between conductor and orchestra, as well as among the sections of the orchestra, bordered on the telepathic.
The sensitivity and response of the musicians to Masur's magical invocations was nothing short of rapturous, in the way the maestro constructed the arch of Bruckner's radiant theme over the near-silence, and then colouring it in with the mellow splendour of horns, woodwinds and low strings. It was a masterclass in how a world-class orchestra should play together.
Therein followed an exposition that was purposeful and yet lyrical, an undescribably beautiful but abstract creation of pure tonal beauty. Some of the full-house audience started fidgeting as early as ten minutes into the work, true, but these were in a small minority. For the most part, the audience was held in thrall through the musical tapestry of emotions, ebbing and flowing, punctuated with much gravitas by the brasses. No wonder this work was Bruckner's greatest success in his lifetime, as well as one which brought him "the fullest measure of joy."
Without rushing the tempo, Masur moulded the sublime Adagio in broad, expansive strokes, the players again responding as one. The strings were simply breathtaking, building up to the opulent, cathedral-like climax of the movement, with the grand, grand fortissimo enveloping every soul in the hall in its unapologetic bombast of absolute sound: liftoff. And then, the apocalyptic drop in dynamics from fff to ppp, with individual instruments voicing over barely-whispering strings. It was an intense, awe-inducing moment, a Brucknerian hallmark, brought to larger-than-life by Masur and Co.
The following Scherzo was fired with raw menace more than anything else, driven relentlessly by low strings and brasses. This was all the more accentuated by a gentle, illuminative Trio section, and I'll say this: in the spacious acoustic of the hall, the three-bar silence separating the Scherzo and Trio was just perfect. Leaving no note unturned and no phrase unexplored, Masur brought the journey to its noble apotheosis in a surefooted display of passion and poetry. This was glorious music accorded a sovereign performance, concluding in a veritable orgasm of sound that showed Singapore audiences what we really mean when we say world-class acoustics. The bar has been raised.
At the end of it all, I think it was the sheer capacity of Masur and the orchestra's ability to communicate so powerfully, that even the most dilettante audience member could not leave but unmoved, untransformed, untouched by what he or she had just experienced. This is the epitome of what great art is all about - the power of communication, of feeling and empathy, of shared experience, and not just for the well-heeled, either. An extraordinary concert for an extraordinary occasion.