At the Singapore Symphony, 3 March 2012

SSO 3 Mar 2012 TicketBefore going to this concert, I scanned through my entire collection of CDs looking for an album by Marc-André Hamelin for him to autograph. I could not find a single one. I was thoroughly disgusted with myself.

During the days at the Flying Inkpot (or go to flyinginkpot.com for the new site), Mr Hamelin’s fame was expanding at high gear. His recordings with Hyperion Records, including works by many an unknown composer, astounded the music circles. It was a great time for exploring piano music. Mr Hamelin’s discography is still humongous – though I am not a big fan of piano music, I have immense respect for him for championing the lesser known. I was pretty sure I had something from his discography… didn’t I own the Alkan concerto at least? I shall have to put this down under the Possible List of CDs I Loaned Out Last Century That I Have No Hope of Getting Back.

Never mind. Again I confess, I didn’t really come for the concerto. Even the concert title/ticket makes no mention of it or who. Except we’re talking about Beethoven’s poetic Piano Concerto No.4, with no less than Marc-André Hamelin, one of the world’s living best.

And he played with masterful composure. Hamelin entered the stage with the quiet poise reserved only for the noblest of pianists. He brought wisdom to the piano, and instantly becalmed the audience with one single notion: this elegant concerto will be played as it should be. It was simply all right. The work, a gentle sister to the majestic “Emperor” Concerto, gave both pianist and orchestra ample opportunities to display subtlety of meditative touch and beauty of tone. The SSO strings gave wonderful performances, full of strength and delicacy, giving me great hope for the second half of the concert.

The concerto’s Andante struck me with its somewhat searching, meditative character. It was almost Sibelian in quality. The thoughtful, melancholic tone, the way melodies seemed incompletely formed, wandering, and that final, elegaic sigh – Hamelin evoked to perfection. While there was an inordinate amount of coughing and velcro-tearing during the first movement and perhaps halfway through the Andante, by the end of the latter, Hamelin had the entire hall in his kingly hold, and we stayed enraptured till the end of the finale. The word that kept appearing in my mind was “dignified”. Hamelin, the SSO and Okko Kamu delivered a performance that exuded dignity, a Beethovenian nobility upheld by assurance of skill.

During the intermission, I approached the SSO merchandise booth and picked up a copy of Hamelin’s recordings of his own piano compositions, including his 12 Études in all the minor keys. I felt that asking such a great pianist to simply autograph the programme booklet was not respectful enough. And in any case, I still love to hear new music, and here was a whole disc of it played by the composer. Standing in the middle of the queue, I discovered to my delight that the Hyperion disc had a clear tray, behind which was a photograph of Mr Hamelin.

Yes, that 2″x 1″ corner of cloudy weather was perfect for an autograph.

Autograph - Marc-André Hamelin

Like Mr Grosvenor before, Mr Hamelin was very amused by my request. He chuckled with a warm smile, and added an extra “(!)” after “Nutcase”. I told him how dignified his performance was, and we shared a warm handshake. Such a gentleman. A good memory, worth treasuring.

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A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph
A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph. I badly wanted to tell her that the last paragraph is inaccurate. There is much evidence that Sibelius was still composing into the late 1930s, and hadn't "abandoned composition in the 1920s", as the notes say.

My memory has not forgotten the fact that Okko Kamu is the conductor who granted my wish to hear the Seventh Symphony “live”, in 1999. While I did actually tell him my wish in person, sometime in the late 1990s, I suppose he would’ve done it anyway sooner or later, even if the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase didn’t exist. But otherwise, the SSO isn’t the first orchestra in Singapore to complete a cycle of the Sibelius Symphonies – that honour lies with The Philharmonic Orchestra, which did it under Lim Yau in 2007-2008 (of which this author wrote the programme notes).

Listening to the Seventh Symphony “live”, I sometimes want to slow the experience of time, just so I can savour it. In a “live” performance, there is no rewind button (and truthfully, trying to rewind the Seventh is a crime). Still, the best performances proceed with inexorable logic. It is a timeless 21 minutes of life, which feels neither long nor short, a chance to touch the face of symphonic divinity – you want it to last but you know it cannot.

Twenty minutes for a symphony is very short in the tradition of classical music. My wife texted me, as I was on my way home before 10pm, asking how come I was so early. My answer to her, besides asking what she wanted for supper, was simple.

Truth be told, I have held the expectation of coming to this concert for so many months, I found it a little hard to satisfy the anticipation – it was soon to be over.  The expectation must have been tremendous, you must think. But after last week’s so-so performance of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, I was not too hopeful – until I heard the Beethoven.

To my delight, the SSO opened Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony with full forest light and glittering sunshine. A font from which came a musical stream of pure cold spring water, as Sibelius might have put it. The orchestra reveled in the chamber-like quality of the music, by turns bright and spirited, or dimming as it invoked wisps of Tapiola. As a whole, the SSO sounded much, much better than it did last week – in fact, it sounded almost like a completely different orchestra. Strings and winds all played with unity and wonderful transparency. While I wished the harp scintillated a little more, otherwise the sounds the orchestra created were bright, airy, sparkling, as befits this, the most sylvan of Sibelius’ symphonies.

I was seated by the side of the hall during the first half with the concerto, but moved to the centre, near the back for the symphonies. I had the whole row to myself, as well as the devoted attention of a well-serviced air conditioning vent. Suitably cold and wintry, the spring waters of the Sixth gave way to the alpine magnificence of the Seventh.

As he did in 1999, Kamu led the orchestra with impressive command. I gasped as lines of the score appeared that I don’t recall hearing before – that’s the best thing about hearing works like this “live”. The SSO once again displayed remarkable transparency, particularly in the strings. While not 100% perfect, they did ample justice to the score. The horns, so rough last week in the Fifth, sounded amazing tonight. The musicians held the performance united, creating voluminous layers of sounds – bass pedals, soaring strings, fluttering woodwind. They held it all very well together. But ironically, it was in the three mighty trombone solos where their act of breeching from the unified layers to intone their majestic hymn seemed disruptive.

Perhaps, like in 1999, Kamu sought not to allow the three climaxes to become overwhelming. I found them slightly underwhelming, though not in an entirely bad way.  It just seemed a little too carefully toned down. The final bars, the symphony’s final invocation of infinity, flowed into being much too soon for me to savour. I was distracted by the bass trombone coming in a split second too early, and was trying to grasp what it meant – but there was no time: the final C major chord was here. Infinity came, wrought with timelessness and Sibelius commanded that the symphony end. Kamu swept his baton, the SSO surged in volume. I didn’t want it to end, I wanted it to last longer. But alas, the light blazed and dimmed out of existence, and I was cast out from the black field of stars, feeling all alone back on earth.

It was not a perfect performance, it was not the greatest I’ve heard, and I was left a little emotionally unsatisfied – but it was still a good performance. Good enough, that may I say, if you keep it this way, SSO, I think you are ready for Tapiola.