A fitting celebration of SS0's 40th anniversary



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

Almost 40 years ago to the week, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed its first concerts at Singapore Conference Hall, led by founding music director Choo Hoey.

The orchestra then numbered 41 musicians, but gave the 1979 audience an inkling of what professional music-making in Singapore was to become.

At its 40th anniversary, present music director Shui Lan helmed a programme that paid tribute to those inaugural concerts.

Two works were reprised. The first was 20th-century American composer Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Its inclusion by Choo was symbolic and rhetorical, as if pondering on an uncertain future of classical music in Singapore or the orchestra for that matter.

That question has, however, been emphatically answered many times over.

Classical music, especially orchestral music, thrives in Singapore today. Even young amateur groups of music-makers now sound more accomplished than the SSO of the early 1980s.

The short mysterious work nonetheless piqued the senses. Muted strings were challenged by David Smith’s trumpet perched high up in the organ loft. This conversation of crossed purposes was interjected by the chatter of a flute quartet, with all involved left none the wiser. Such was the intent of the iconoclastic Ives.

More down to earth was the second reprised work, Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, popularly known as the Emperor for its sweeping grandeur.

Lim Yan, the first Singaporean to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos here as a cycle, was the ideal soloist. That he got every note down pat was a given.

His projection of unruffled authority, full-blooded tone and a sheer sense of joy that radiated through its three movements made this a most rewarding outing.

The concert’s opening work was also the first Singaporean work performed by the fledgling SSO.

Dayong Sampan by the late Leong Yoon Pin, considered the father of Singaporean composition, was a heady fusion of Western and Eastern idioms.

Amid a commotion of brass fanfares and buzzing strings, the emergence of the Malay melody on solo oboe represented a quintessential Singaporean musical moment. Like the year 1965, this 1980 composition has rightly become a landmark and an icon.

If the first half sounded promising, the second was even better.

Shui had replaced Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (another symbolic choice of Choo’s) with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The faster tempos he adopted were close to perfect as there were no moments for the music to lag.

Even the first movement’s slow introduction sounded swift and the second movement’s variations unfolded with inexorable purpose.

As if to demonstrate the orchestra’s prowess, the final two movements were taken at a breathless pace and the effect was thrilling. Just as the symphony clocked in under 40 minutes, SSO’s 40 years has felt like a breeze.

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