Concert Review: Zarathustra! – Orchestra of the Music Makers, Shao-Chia Lü, 17 Aug 2019
Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra
William Walton Belshazzar’s Feast
Peter Sidhom baritone
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Lü Shao-Chia conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Review by Derek Lim
What a fascinatingly programmed concert! Apart from Richard Strauss’ obvious influences on William Walton – people will point you to the orchestration at the ‘writing on the wall’ section of Belshazzar’s Feast – the superficial mirroring of Nietzsche’s famous ‘God is Dead’ statement in Zarathustra against the mythology of the ghostly hand (of God) that states Belshazzar’s fate is, well, delicious.
Shao-Chia Lü, Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan since 2010, was the ambitiously-programmed evening’s invited guest, and it was my first time seeing him conduct. Unassuming, his clear, energetic gestures led the Orchestra of the Music Makers through their paces.
Zarathustra is a challenging work to hang together – you need to bring out the programmatic elements while balancing its symphonic argument and sustaining concentration. Lü was largely successful in this – beginning with a technicolor ‘Sunrise’ (lovely brass and timpani here) that managed to surprise with a sudden theatrical decrescendo in its final sustained chord, before swelling again to its climax.
The individual movements had their felicities – the hushed, divided strings, singing sweetly in the highest registers (Of the Backworldsmen) made a wonderfully nostalgic sound, and there was a real swing in ‘Of Joys and Passions’.
Lovely, energetic string attack in the fugue led up to the climax and ‘recapitulation’ of Sunrise in ‘The Convalescent’. Lü was sensitive to the characterization and orchestral sound of the movements, stating the themes without underlying them too much. Somewhat weaker were his transitions – which were generally too gently executed – and greater momentum could have kept the work moving along more. Earlier sentimentality aside, the work’s coda, which famously vacillates between C major and B minor before settling on the latter, was as matter-of-fact as any.
If the Strauss, waxing philosophical, took some decoding, OMM’s performance of William Walton’s in-your-face, too-loud Biblical cantata – only Singapore’s second performance – was a take-no-prisoners romp that absolutely kicked ass. It’s difficult to say who the star of the show was – orchestra, baritone Peter Sidhom or the excellent Symphonia Choralis, prepared by chorus master Chong Wai Lun.
Was it the orchestra, augmented with rows of brass players, who played so precisely and attacked the music at a totally different level than in Zarathustra, colourfully evoking cinematic, bacchanalian revelry?
Or the huge, always responsive choir, who created such a vibrant, beautifully alive sound in ‘By the waters of Babylon’, handling the angular syncopations in ‘In Babylon Belshazzar the King made a great feast’ so confidently, bringing such a joyful sound in ‘Praise ye’, and sounding so chillingly murderous in ‘Slain!’?
I’m going to say it was Peter Sidhom, who huffed, puffed and blew away the audience away with his almost-evangelical zeal, sonorously declaiming his part with ease. He revelled in ‘Babylon was great city’, pointedly putting away his music before that section arrived, and filling the hall with such lovingly articulated visions that you could almost smell the frankincense.
An outing that all involved should be proud of.
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