Concert Review: Kate Liu and OMM bring pianistic poetry to the Esplanade | Flying Inkpot
STRAVINSKY – Pulcinella Suite
MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
WEILL – Symphony No. 2 “Fantaisie Symphonique”
Kate Liu, piano
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Chan Tze Law, conductor
Saturday 16 Oct 2021, Esplanade Concert Hall
by Derek Lim
The draw of this evening’s concert was Singaporean-born pianist Kate Liu, who shot to stardom when she won the bronze medal at the 2015 Chopin Competition, but the real stars could arguably be said to be the Orchestra of the Music Makers, who played their first full-orchestra* concert in recent memory.
Kate Liu’s Chopin chops have been proven at the world’s greatest Chopin platform, where she impressed the jury and audience alike with her dreamy musicality, poetic playing and beautiful tone. All these qualities were in evidence in her thoroughly Romantic interpretation of Mozart’s stormy D minor Piano Concerto, where she eschewed Classical sensibility for something more Beethovenian – a big-band approach that Chan Tze Law and OMM were happy to go along with.
Liu’s unabashedly old-fashioned take on the concerto – right from the beginning where she slowed down significantly at the all-important piano solo entrance – signaled that she wanted to make the concerto something much larger in scale. But audience members expecting this to result in a more barnstorming, virtuoso reading would have been disappointed. Except in the angry, Sturm und Drang Beethoven cadenzas, which had all the drama you could ask for, Liu was curiously laid back in the outer movements.
This had the effect of minimizing the tension between the soloist and the orchestra, led compellingly by Chan. It was the operatic middle movement Romanza, which Liu started off more slowly than usual, that showed her pianism and poetry to best effect, with liquid tone and a beautiful touch, supported by Chan, who kept a firm eye on the movement’s structure and set the framework for Liu, while bringing out some lovely woodwind playing.
Stravinsky’s neoclassical Pulcinella Suite – the Russian composer’s take on pieces by Pergolesi – was perhaps the most impressive item tonight, with not a hair out of place in this lovely but difficult work that I’ve long loved. With every movement well-characterized and masterfully balanced, each section could be heard clearly in an interpretation that was level-headed and intellectual, yet full of heart where needed.
Save a couple of unadroit transitions, Pulcinella allowed each section to show off their musicians to best effect, starting with the all-round excellent concertmaster Chikako Sasaki. Also to be commended are the horn and oboe principals (Alexander Oon and Seow Yibin, also OMM’s associate conductor), the principal bassoonist Lim Tee Heong and of course the solo trombonist Don Kow and double bassist Julian Li who played so characterfully in “Vivo”. But the orchestra impressed too, with attentive, disciplined ensemble under Chan’s (neo)-classically firm hand.
The evening’s closer, Kurt Weill’s Second Symphony, was written in 1933 amid the turmoil of the emerging Third Reich in Nazi Germany, which forced the Dreigroschenoper composer to have to flee for France. Inhabited by the ghosts of the cabaret and theatre music that the composer was famous for (his wife was singer-actress Lotte Lenya, who he married twice), Weill ascribed no programme to his very serious-sounding symphony, written in three movements.
Chan’s interpretation was a well-played, extroverted one that felt more at home in the bigger, more dramatic moments than the cooler, wistful, urban ones. After the first movement’s initial trumpet solo, commandingly played by Lau Wen Rong over brooding strings, the music was plunged into restless string figurations in a tightly wrought performance. Highlighting the composer’s acerbic musical wit, Chan projected the musical narrative clearly, though I wondered if some episodes could have been underlined a little more, with more rhetoric.
The Largo – featuring atmospheric, evocative music once again reminiscent of the theatre, perhaps even film noir – was taken at a fast-ish pace that if taken more slowly may have allowed the music to settle more into its emotional heart. For example, while the sinuous, ghostly episode on strings was winningly rendered, the plaintive wind passages were taken a little too quickly to make their emotional mark.
The third and final movement, marked ‘Allegro vivace’ – a sardonic circus of helter-skelter moto perpetuo with lots of counterpoint – was taken by Chan at a whirlwind pace that nevertheless allowed a full display of orchestral virtuosity and colour from the on-form OMM. A little Prokofiev-meets-Shostakovich in its relentless frivolity amidst the forced militaristic gestures, Chan kept the orchestra’s energy up to the last bars – even if sometimes the composer’s intentions remained nebulous (perhaps deliberately so?), ending a courageous attempt at this seldom-played and technically challenging music.
All in all, a successful outing that demanded and taxed – but also rewarded – the audience’s full attention.
*Ok, not Mahlerian full, but definitely good enough for now.