Debussy Tonight – The Philharmonia Orchestra Singapore, 26 Oct 2014
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)
Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans*
The Philharmonic Orchestra
*The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Conductor: Lim Yau
Presenter: William Ledbetter
26th October 2014, 5pm
Victoria Concert Hall
Review by Soo Kian Hing
“I loved it!” Gushed one concert-goer after the concert.
“Yes, it was great with the narration,” agreed her companion.
That pretty much summed up the concert. End of review (yes, I’m tempted). But, just how great was the narration, and how did The Philharmonic Orchestra fare in some of the more difficult repertoire of the 20th century?
Besides being active in the theatre and music scene as an actor, presenter and educator, William Ledbetter also holds a Bachelor of Music from the Oberlin Conservatory, and throughout the evening there was no shortage of musical theory discussion, albeit simplified for the layman. Right from the beginning, the orchestra and presenter showed that this was to be no ordinary run-of-the-mill concert where the audience sat through piece after piece. Much thought had been put into the presentation, with Ledbetter narrating letters from the composer himself, who was apparently busy in heaven, watching the world advance for the past century. Construing Debussy as a prodigious musical inventor who was misunderstood for his novel musical language and frowned upon by his peers for his daring to break with tradition, Ledbetter made sure everyone understood the historical significance of Debussy’s music, and of Wagner’s influence on the French composer, by demonstrating in depth some musical theory on the celesta. Lim Yau assisted by deconstructing an excerpt from La Mer — getting each section of basses, cellos, violins, horns, trumpets and trombones to play separately and then in tutti — showing how the Javanese gamelan, presented at the Paris Exposition of 1889, was an important source of inspiration for Debussy’s dense harmonies and complex rhythms. It would have been yet another nice soiree without this grand exposition; with the in-depth analysis, the concert was turned into a sort of music appreciation masterclass.
As Ledbetter explained, Debussy (right) considered himself a Symbolist in the grand scheme of the arts movement of the period (the title of “Impressionist”, we were informed, was collared on him by a society-at-large that could not understand his music, seeking to lump him with the Impressionist painters like Monet). Music and literature are often inseparable, and the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was inspired a poem of the same name by French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé. Without directly setting the words to music, Debussy wove a sensuous and opulent symphonic poem that called up a warm drowsy afternoon where a satyr (the “faun”) frolicked with nymphs and naiads. While the material lent itself all too easily to bloated hedonism, Lim Yau took a moderate path, choosing to build scene upon scene using layers of music, creating each mood exquisitely with great attention to detail. The climax was all the more sumptuous for this anticipation, and Lim gave the music plenty of space where time stood still and the dappled rays of the sun shifted between the satyr and other mythical wildlife. Special mention must be made of flautist Terence Teow who had to play the opening solo flute motif thrice, including two times as part of Ledbetter’s demonstration of the famous “Devil’s interval” or tritone inherent in the flute solo. Never once wavering, Teow’s playing immediately conjured up the oppressive heat of the afternoon with the opening ten notes. The rest of the “afternoon” passed as in a hazy dream, and The Philharmonic Orchestra responded to Lim like a hand in glove.
Lim Yau, one of Singapore’s foremost choral conductors, naturally programmed Trois Chansons — for unaccompanied choir — with members of The Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Victoria Concert Hall is not considered a spacious hall by modern standards, but the Chansons were perhaps intended for performance in a more enclosed space to evoke the 15th-century writings of Charles d’Orleans, three poems of whom were used as the lyrics. Aside from that and slightly shaky sopranos at the start, the singing was clean, with an exceptional alto solo from Helga Haller in the second song that gave it a decidedly early-music flavour.
La Mer was the evening’s pièce de résistance: every effort was made to draw Debussy’s sensuality from it. Even as Debussy meant for music to be written, performed and enjoyed on its merits alone, there is no denying the symbolist nature of this composition: the calm sea at dawn, the ebb and flow of gentle lapping tides, and the surging waves under the brilliant glare of an overhead sun at noon. The performers showed great imagination and verve, and in the second and third movements Lim Yau displayed his ability to draw a bewildering palette of tonal colours from the orchestra, as well as dexterity in handling the dialogue between the wind and the sea.
The Philharmonic Orchestra may have had its humble beginnings as a pit orchestra, but its forays into mainstream repertoire over the past few years has established it as a veritable ensemble of professional standards. The unorthodox but welcome presentation of concerts like “Debussy Tonight!” adds an element of education that is sorely lacking in the local classical music scene. Classical music is a complex art form that is often imbued with meaning and significance beyond the superfluous; in parallel with the best literature, drama and visual arts of each generation, an exploration into the seminal music of each era affords us a window with which to better understand the human condition. Kudos to The Philharmonic Orchestra and Lim Yau for such a brave departure from the placidity of the norm, and much praise must be accorded to Ledbetter for bringing an otherwise dry topic to life!