Music Review: SSO's livestreamed Spirit of Serenity concert imbued with sense of togetherness

SINGAPORE – Last week’s government directives effectively put paid to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s concerts scheduled for Friday (March 27) and Saturday.

But these concerts had already become the victims of measures put in place to suppress the spread of the Coronavirus. British conductor Stephen Layton had been prevented from travelling here, and the guidelines on social distancing had meant that a Victoria Concert Hall stage packed with choral singers and orchestral musicians was no longer viable.

Two scheduled concerts of choral and orchestral music were quickly reduced to one concert of music for a small string ensemble conducted by Singaporean Darrell Ang.

If this drastic change had seemed a bit of a let-down for potential concertgoers, as it transpired, it turned out to be a prescient decision. For, with the hall closed to the public, such an intimate ensemble was perfect for the medium of a live webcast broadcast on the SSO’s YouTube channel (where you can still watch it), and with just 32 string players on stage, it meant they could spread out sufficiently to conform to guidelines on social distancing.

The World Health Organisation has asked people to ditch the phrase “social distancing” and this concert showed why. The musicians may have been physically a metre or more apart, but that seemed to increase the social cohesion evident in their playing.

This performance had a real sense of intimacy, brought about not so much by the camera lenses which allowed the audience at home to get close to the players in a way they never could in the concert hall, but because the players themselves imbued everything with an overwhelming sense of togetherness.

The concert opened with Britten’s Simple Symphony – a work the composer assembled in middle age from some juvenile piano sketches – and Ang drew some delightfully light and bubbly playing from his musicians. Perhaps he made the Sentimental Saraband too lugubrious, but the Playful Pizzicato pattered along happily and the Frolicsome Finale had a wonderful fizz to it.

Percussionist Mario Choo came on stage and periodically tolled a bell, reminding us that Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten was originally a funeral ode lamenting the death of a fellow-composer, but perhaps not wanting to let things get too grief-laden, Ang pushed this along quite briskly. There was, nevertheless, a lovely ringing resonance to the string tone here.

The departure of the bell-toller prompted a wave of enthusiastic bow-tapping from the string players (well, there was nobody else around to applaud), who then launched into Tchaikovsky’s hugely popular Serenade.

No additional players had come on stage, yet the sound was big and fulsome, the playing powerful and committed, and the emotional breadth vividly expansive. There was a lovely lift to the Waltz (surely one of the finest ever written), and the finale provided a wonderful burst of optimism to close a concert which was a simple, honest-to-goodness triumph.

Spirit of Serenity

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Darrell Ang (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall (live streamed via YouTube)

Saturday (March 28)

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