SSO Concert: Pictures at an Exhibition / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (28 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 April 2012 with the title "Picture-perfect melodies".

It has been many years since the Singapore Symphony Orchestra last performed a Familiar Favourites Concert. This evening’s offering brought back a flavour of the late-lamented series that was much loved by relative newcomers to subscription concerts, not just because of the friendly repertoire, but also a sense of informality and congeniality.

Central to all this was the final appearance in a concerto by the orchestra’s very popular Concertmaster Alexander Souptel, Russian-born but naturalised Singaporean, whose infectious smile and habitual non-verbal gestures are now standard issues of SSO concerts. In short, he himself had become a “Familiar Favourite” over the past 19 years.

Although not possessing the biggest of tones, infallible technique or spotless intonation, his enduring strength is in coaxing the violin to sing in a most natural and seemingly effortless manner. His namesake and compatriot Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto (left) provided ample opportunities, and how he seamlessly shaped the slow movement’s cloying melody like a crooner who gratefully clings on to every note. 

He makes the listener long that every lingering phrase might never end, not by force of will but by charm of persuasion. After the pyrotechnics of the finale had abated, his encore of Carlos Gardel’s tango Por una cabeza with the orchestra, oozing sentimentality from every pore, was icing on the cake.

More favourites filled the programme, beginning with Dvorak’s rousing Carnival Overture (left), driven at a furious pace by SSO Young Associate Conductor Darrell Ang, but without sacrificing attention to detail. In the same vein was Ravel’s Technicolor orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, also conducted from memory. 

Both instrumental and ensemble prowess shared equal billing, with the plum role falling to free-lance guest trumpeter John Terry Bingham whose stand-out solos in the opening Promenade and the whiny Goldenberg and Schmuyle were outstanding to say the least. Tang Xiao Ping, swapping the saxophone for his clarinet, sang like a forlorn troubadour in The Old Castle, and even the odd raspberry from the tuba helped the lumbering old oxcart of Bydlo sound suitably rickety.

With all the picturesque movements, inspired by sketches from Mussorgsky’s late friend Viktor Hartmann, impressively characterised and deliciously realised, this was a performance to win new friends for the orchestra. Is this a good time to ask for a return of the Familiar Favourites?