Concert Review: From Across the Causeway – Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, 1 Sep 2018, Victoria Concert Hall

photo credit: A Tang


Vivian Chua: Mercu Kegemilangan

Copland: Clarinet Concerto

Beethoven Symphony No.5 in c minor

Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra

1 September 2018, Victoria Concert Hall

Review by Derek Lim


This well-attended concert at the Victoria Concert Hall, titled ‘From Across the Causeway’ showed off our neighbours, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, in startling form.

Opening the evening was Vivian Chua’s ‘Mercu Kegemilangan’, where she ‘endeavours to capture … the spirit of the MPO’. Attractively written in a resolutely diatonic musical language, with few harmonic surprises, this three-themed short piece lasted about ten minutes, starting with a brilliant flourish that moves into a more expressive, pastoral theme and lastly into the joget, a popular Malaysian dance. The orchestra responded vigorously to Eiji Oue’s entertainingly choreographed leadership, with lovely things to be heard in all sections, but it was the string choir that most impressed, with its dark, full-bodied sound with seemingly no hard edges.

Up next was Copland’s clarinet concerto, featuring the orchestra’s own clarinet principal, Gonzalo Esteban. Taking a slightly slower tempo than is usual for the concerto’s pensive, lullaby-like first movement, marked ‘Slowly and expressively’, Esteban’s excellent breath control allowed for beautiful tone production in all registers, even the very highest, with especially difficult floated high notes.

His very expressive phrasing was matched by his orchestra’s sensitive accompaniment, with some especially sympathetic playing in the strings. The bravura cadenza saw his playing transition into something freer – taking Benny Goodman’s cue, this was played ‘straight’ – before moving into the second movement. Playfully rendered, Esteban even introduced a bit of ‘swing’ here, with lots of charm and wit – a great end to the evening’s first half, and to much appreciation from the audience.

The second half was hardly less impressive. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is so well-known by orchestras and audiences alike that everyone has an opinion on how it should go. Oue, with his muscular, non-interventionist approach allowed the orchestra to do their own thing mostly, despite his flamboyant conducting.

The first movement’s fortissimo motif, played in tempo, was strongly stated, and with great impact, but the quick tempo maintained throughout the movement, coupled with the VCH’s wet acoustics meant that the silences between phrases was less keenly felt, less rhetorical. The horns were in great form, as were the cellos and violas in their flowing second movement’s flowing variation, and while brisk tempi were chosen, only the scherzo seemed a bit hard-driven.

Less satisfying was the mezzo-forte level taken throughout much of the symphony, which had the effect of muting the climaxes and blunting the inexorable build-up from minor to major. And the MPO was excellent, no doubt, but where was the Beethovenian struggle? When the finale’s C major came it felt less hard-won and inevitable – perhaps it was just a little too easy for this orchestra.

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