Concert Review: Ray Chen Plays Sibelius | The Flying Inkpot
WEBER Overture to Euryanthe
SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47*
MUSSORGSKY Pictures At An Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
Ray Chen, violin *
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Hans Graft, conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
8 April 2022
Review by Derek Lim
What a celebration this concert was! Though last week’s all-Shostakovich performance was technically the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s first (somewhat) post-Covid full-orchestra concert, this evening had all the festivity of a Proms concert. Full house – check. Celebrity soloist – check. Popular programme guaranteed to please audiences – check. Audience lines snaked throughout the Esplanade’s lobby, probably because of the need to verify everyone’s pre-event antigen rapid test results, resulting in the concert starting a full 20 minutes late.
The festivities were made even more so by the addition of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra to the already full-sized SSO, making, as charismatic Chief Conductor Hans Graf said, ‘one of the biggest orchestras you’ve seen in years.’
The opening Euryanthe overture was just the potboiler the orchestra needed to start off. Bubbly and enthusiastic, if lighter in precision, there were some lovely moments in the central chamber-like string episodes.
Australian Ray Chen, the charming headlining soloist, was in fine form in the ensuing Sibelius violin concerto. Technically impeccable, his take was hyper-masculine to the point of aggression, especially in bowing and vibrato – with louder passages predictably ending in him spearing his bow in the air – a contradiction in this concerto that lives in nuance, twilight and Nordic chill. Every phrase was molded, where sometimes a little more simplicity would have made other passages more pointed. He was also often impatient, moving passages along before silence was given its due. For example, in the first movement cadenza, a greater appreciation for the silence between his perfectly double-stopped passages would have yielded greater musical dividends.
The second movement Adagio, a long-breathed song without words, takes patience to build up to its climax. Here he was again too impetuous, with too much white heat, where perhaps a little introspection and respite would have been appreciated.
The final movement, flashily virtuosic, was where Ray was in his showy element – reveling in Sibelius’ virtuosic passages and double and triple stops, which he played perfectly, bringing the concerto to its life-affirming end, to vociferous applause from the full-house audience.
As encore, he played his own arrangement of Waltzing Matilda – a stunning arrangement with all the violinistic fireworks you could ask for.
Some orchestras around the world have taken to canceling their performances of Russian repertoire or replacing them with works from other countries – a token gesture that is wrong-headed, in my opinion. Perhaps in an attempt to fend out any would-be critics, SSO oboist Elaine Yeo prefaced this evening’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition by explaining why the SSO had not taken the same route. Defensive note aside, this big-hearted, friendly performance had colour, vibrance and enthusiasm to fill another two Esplanade Concert Halls.
With principal trumpet Jon Dante leading the charge, this performance had lots of heart, even if, as might be expected with such large forces, precision wasn’t up to the SSO’s usual polish. Saxophonist Samuel Phua’s contribution was nobly intoned in The Old Castle, while principal tubist Tomoki Natsume starred in Bydlo. But it was the massed strings, not heard for so long, which were a joy to behold, though, and impress they did with their huge sound. Enjoyable though the other movements were, it was the return of the waves of sound in the full orchestra in the hair-raisingly vivid Baba Yagar and The Great Gate at Kiev (Kyiv) that left tingles going down my spine and goose-flesh on my arms – a triumphant conclusion to a celebration of an evening.