Concert Review – Rousing Russia – Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Ray Chen, Andrew Litton, 15 Mar 2019

Ray Chen, Andrew Litton and the combined SNYO and SSO.
all photos by Jack Yam

BORODIN Overture to Prince Igor

PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante assai
3. Allegro, ben marcato

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
1. Andante – Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
3. Valse. Allegro moderato
4. Finale: Andante maestoso

Ray Chen, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall
15 March 2019

Review by Derek Lim

Mention gala concerts and you’re likely to think of stuffy hi-so events featuring established artistes (think Sumi Jo, Renée Fleming and Anne-Sophie Mutter), with tickets priced enticingly out of the reach of mere mortals.

Tonight’s sold-out SSO gala, headlined by 30-year-old Ray Chen, had more in common with a Ed Sheeran gig – if Ed Sheeran was a Taiwanese-Australian virtuoso violinist with a carefully cultivated social media presence and a perfectly coiffed dapper cut. The involvement of members of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, playing alongside stalwarts of the Singapore Symphony, coupled with an affordable ticket price-point, further ensured that the Esplanade Concert Hall would be packed to the rafters with starstruck fanboys and screaming schoolgirls.

Andrew Litton

Principal guest conductor Andrew Litton led the mixed orchestra in an all-Russian evening that started with Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture and ended with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. If there were opening jitters, these were quickly smoothed over, with some vibrant playing in the overture, with lots of colour and a cheerfully responsive orchestra.

The symphony was idiomatic and passionately played, with Litton playing up the music’s balletic elements. You could nearly see the two principal dancers gazing fervently at each other in the second movement’s febrile climaxes. Elsewhere, his approach felt more improvisatory – in the first movement, he teased the listeners by holding back instead of tearing straight into the climaxes, letting them rip only right at the end. In all this, Litton seemed to aim more for massiveness of sound than agility of response or finesse – a wise approach, perhaps, given that it was the first time the young musicians were performing together. By the Finale’s last passages, there was no question that the orchestra – with the brass sounding especially handsome and bright tonight – had conquered the demons of Tchaikovsky’s imagination.

Ray Chen in action

But the high point of the evening was undoubtedly Ray Chen’s performance of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. I had had only a passing familiarity with his artistry previously, and to be honest, his ubiquitous social media presence made me wonder if it was something that he needed to do to distract from his inadequacies. I was happy to be proven wrong. In spite of his theatrics and sometimes over-the-top showmanship, his performance was gripping from start to end.

Revelling in the music’s quick mood changes – from honey-coated lyricism to double- and triple-stopped fireworks – his violin was a compelling narrator, with flights of hot-blooded virtuosity effortlessly and eagerly negotiated. The approach was romantic (lots of glissandi), but with an underlying control of the narrative that could only have been achieved through much study. The first movement’s final pizzicatos, snuffing out the music, were masterfully done.

The second movement (Andante assai) was vibrato-laden, yet played ‘straight’ with not too much rubato, and variations spun easily and musically over the orchestra’s statement of the main theme.  Dancing with the music, his left foot was frequently on tip-toe. Distracting facial frowns and grimaces aside, his playing was always communicative. The Spanish-influenced foot-stomping finale (Allegro, ben marcato) had highly dramatic exchanges between soloist and orchestra, and Chen breaking bow hairs repeatedly with his athletic double-stopped bowing. Virtuosic display was the order of the day, with lovely staccatos, martelés and perfectly rendered runs making the violin sound especially in the final, frenetically virtuosic passages, like some proto-electric guitar – it was breathless, heart-racing stuff.

As encore, Chen’s own set of variations on ‘Waltzing Matilda’, complete with a Bachian minor-key variation and another with whistled artificial harmonics, was pure aural cotton candy. His rendition of Paganini’s 21st caprice on the other hand, which he explained he inflicts on audiences around the world now because he found his own way of handling the up-bow staccato, was masterful and extrovert. He drew gasps from the audience at the explosive up-bow passages.

At the autographs

It also demonstrated one thing: many violinists may be able to play the caprice, but it takes a certain showmanship and personality to tell the audience exactly what they should be looking out for. If that helps him stand out amongst the many violinists, then more power to him. It was a thoroughly memorable evening, made even more so by his signing autographs and taking selfies with each and every one of the nearly 500 persons in the queue after what must have been an exhausting evening. Thank you, Ray and do come back again!

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