A ‘flat’ Strauss, a controlled Mozart and a ‘whooping’ Mendelssohn

SOSL Premières Concert 2009 on October 9, at Ladies’ College Hall
By A. S. H. Smyth

Richard Strauss’s score for the Fanfare der Stadt Wien calls for “10 trumpets, 5 trombones, 2 each alto trombones and tubas and no fewer than 5 timpani – forces which it rarely gets in performance.”

Thus spake the SOSL programme, and unfortunately their performance was no exception. What with the limited numbers and the unforgiving acoustic, let us just say that the citizens of Vienna are unlikely to have been troubled by the blast. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a martial-style fanfare to be played in a disciplined manner (especially when rendered by actual serving members of the forces). But this particular rendition seemed to suggest that, any minute now, our Teutonic knight would gallop into view, only for the expectant Viennese to discover he was riding… a donkey.
Atsushi Kimura Keiko Kobayashi

Opening-number nerves, perhaps. Swelled by the strings, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 began more confidently, and if the slow movement was slower than I would have liked (one of too-many issues over which critics will readily shed blood), the third movement, the ‘Rondo’, was classically/classily rambunctious, a thorough-bred hunting tune.

Ms Keiko Kobayashi – returning to the SOSL podium for the third time in as many years – conducted with a graceful economy, letting the orchestra do the work for her (and rightly so: conducting may be among the performing arts, but it is not, in itself, the performance).

Atsushi Kimura, the visiting horn soloist, was less impressive. Though he warmed to his task, peaking in a warm and generous – if not exactly crystal clear – cadenza in the ‘Allegro’, he was generally tentative in a way that, if only for technical reasons (cf. ‘note-splitting’), horn players cannot afford to be. Add to that the muted technique, howsoever ‘authentic’ (brass instruments used to be less, um… brassy) and the whole business can start to sound a little absent, as though the soloist is too modest to embrace his status. Or as though the clarion blower has got himself lost in the woods.

Kimura offered a short, solo, and literally un-called-for, encore, of Sakura Sakura, a Japanese folk-melody (means ‘cherry blossom’, naturally). It was by far the most beautiful moment of the evening, and wiped the floor with the Strauss. Then he joined the orchestra in an arrangement of Olu Pipila, which was predictably well-received. If nothing else, I took pleasure in Kimura’s evident enjoyment of the evening. (There’s nothing worse than a soloist who acts like he’s taken time out of his busy schedule to do the audience a favour.)

After some funereal drum-rolling, tempestuous woodwind and flurries of strings – all good pre-Wagnerian Sturm-und-Whatnot – Mendelssohn’s Overture to ‘Ruy Blas’ proceeds to flit rather capriciously between vulgar cheer and subdued introspection. But it was the most neatly executed of the orchestral items: the wind provided stern support, the violins rode out an often-frantic pace, the cellos gave a master-class in full-armed, lyrical playing. For once, the Colombo crowd broke with its traditional reserve, giving the orchestra some proper applause – and even a few whoops.

When Schumann wrote his five-movement ‘Rhenish’ Symphony he clearly wasn’t imagining an audience on wooden seats in 35° heat (though I suppose he may have been when he later tried to drown himself in the eponymous river). Boy, is it long!

The orchestra’s decision to resist the lure of bombasticism and treat the symphony as a study in controlled strength was entirely laudable; but if middle movements will have no beginning and end (as is their wont) they need a little more dynamic development within themselves than SOSL was inclined to offer. The gentility of several themes was well preserved, but by the beginning of the fourth movement the brass were once again muddying their own waters and the audience began to fidget. The symphony was very rousing in the last 10 bars or so; but too little, too late. The encore – the dance from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (also Mendelssohn) – was shorter and sweeter.

P. S. There is no traditional formula for lauding the man who writes the programme notes, but I would like to give a mention here to Rajeev Aloysius, scholar and gent, whose excellent contribution (to which I have done no justice) alone warranted the expenditure of Rs 100. All too often, musical writing (ahem) is leaden stuff; but his lightly-worked combination of anecdote and analysis was a pleasure to read.

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