May 15, 2009

Of Bruch and Bernstein…

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This article was submitted in partial fulfillment of the Music Criticism component for my BA(Hons) degree course. I couldn’t post it until now because it had to be marked and graded first. Enjoy (:


“The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry.” – Leon Theremin, inventor of the theramin, one of the earliest electronic music instruments. Based on the above statement, how would the same orchestra perform when faced with two similar programmes, two talented fiddlers, and two very different conductors?

The orchestra in question was the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, whose ‘08-’09 season includes more Bernstein works than usual in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Candide Suite were performed on September 12 under the baton of Resident Conductor Lim Yau, and On The Town: Three dance Episodes on September 20 under the baton of Rossen Milanov.

Lim Yau, veteran conductor of the SSO, directed with flowery movements. Newcomer Milanov’s angular strokes of the baton were not as aesthetically pleasing, but were much more effective and easier for the orchestra to follow.

Huang Mengla’s technique was almost flawless, his weak link being his arrogance. He executed all virtuosic passages with ease and panache, playing with a maturity that belied his youthful looks. His playing style, which yielded a rich and sonorous tone from the violin, remained the same throughout the whole of the Serenade. This worked favourably in the slower movements. One could just imagine the young, charismatic Agathon giving his panegyric that embraces all aspects of love’s powers, or Socrates and his introspective musings in his description of his visit to the seer Diotima. However, in the faster movements he seemed to be suggesting, “I’m off, catch me if you can!” He picked any tempo and started off with it, not seeming to care about what the orchestra was playing and whether they could keep up with him. The orchestra was in frenzy. Lim Yau tried best as he could to control the orchestra, but the strings were in a mess, and the first violins were rushing.

In contrary, Arabella Steinbacher’s rendition of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was outstanding. Since this work consists of Bruch’s adaptations of Scottish folk melodies divided into clear-cut movements, it offers a wide range of characters – from the deeply melancholic to the ethereal to the joyful and boisterous – giving the soloist a chance to demonstrate her capabilities on the violin. And demonstrate she did, along with an obviously deep understanding of the music. Following the orchestra’s introduction, she had the audience captivated with her sensitive introduction that was like a distant star shimmering in the night sky. Sensitivity was a key feature of her playing, and unlike Huang, she blended well with the orchestra rather than fought against them. She switched easily from virtuosic passages to long lyrical lines, and her technique certainly did not disappoint. Along with good technique, she had totally commanding stage presence.

Suite from Candide was arranged by Charlie Harmon, Bernstein’s personal assistant and music editor. This graceful and charming arrangement is peppered with influences of Strauss and Elgar, but its composition style is extremely unlike that of Bernstein. Lim Yau’s elaborated strokes suit the nature of the piece well, but the arrangement did not capture the essence of Bernstein’s writing, even when using his music. Milanov tried to make the three dances from On The Town as ‘American’ as he could, and the swing character he conjured sounded a little forced. Although he had full control of the orchestra, he did not manage to get the feel of the work. Maybe, just maybe if Milanov was American, everything would have sounded perfect.

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