Gala concert — SSO and Li Yundi

Last night, Friday 24th July.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, cond.


Karl Goldmark
Rustic Wedding Symphony, Op. 26


Peter Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

I arrived 25 minutes early at 1905h, which was just as well because security was tight, on account of the recent bombings in Jakarta and the fact that there were a number of VIPs in the audience. It took me about 7 minutes to clear the security screening (bag search, metal detectors). After a quick visit to the washroom, I seated myself at 1915h.

I booked late for this concert so only managed to get a seat in the gallery behind the stage. Better than nothing, and worth being there at least once for a different point of view. I was seated at about the 1 o’clock position (from the conductor’s rostrum). Being the naughty person that I am I snapped a picture with my phone’s camera before the concert began:


The security screening and the full house caused the start of the concert to be delayed by 15 minutes to 1945h.

Sound-wise the gallery is definitely not the best place to be. The balance was odd, being a complete reversal of what one hears when seated in front of the stage. The first and second violins sounded distant and thin. The chance to be close to the players and to have a player’s view of the conductor sort of made up for the poor sound.

There was a minor scare just before the start. A patron entering the gallery tripped on the stairs and stumbled THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP down towards the low wall separating the gallery from the stage. She managed to stop her descent in time, to prevent herself from ending up amongst the double basses.

I’d never heard Goldmark before so didn’t know what to expect. I must say I rather enjoyed it. The SSO players were in pretty good form. Perhaps its because they’ve been working on it for the album that is being recorded right now. The only sour point was between the first and second movements. Maestro Lan Shui had his baton up and the players ready to go, but he had to pause when someone’s phone alarm rang at 2000h, from the gallery of all places. DING-tika-DING-tika-DING-tika. (I know it was an alarm because the concert hall is completely shielded from the mobile networks.) At first I thought that the percussionist, who was poised with triangle in one hand and beater in the other, had decided to start the second movement early!

After the 20-minute intermission we had the main event, Li Yundi playing the Tchaikovsky No. 1. The orchestra seemed to be under-rehearsed. One of the French horns wobbled on the 3 dotted minims in bars 78 to 80. On the last one in bar 80, the French horn went completely flat and almost broke. On the whole the ensemble playing could have been tighter.

As for Li Yundi’s playing, I can’t make any meaningful comment here. The piano sound was awful, no doubt due to my being seated behind the orchestra and therefore on the wrong side of the open lid. The poor balance caused the loss of a lot of the tension derived from the changes in tempi and dynamics. Li Yundi seemed a little disconnected from the performance at times, and missed a bunch of notes. I don’t expect note-perfection from pianists in live concerts. But that coupled with all the other negatives made the entire experience somewhat underwhelming.

Postscript 15th September 2009: My poor impression of Yundi Li’s Tchaikovsky was spot on, it seems. I didn’t read the reviews in the press the next day, but I was recently told that all the reviews panned the performance. I was also told that he did not prepare for the concert, and over-pedaled to cover up the messier bits. I hope the young man doesn’t think that Singapore is some cultural backwater where audiences wouldn’t know a bad performance even if it kicked them in the guts. He tours Germany and the UK in October next year with the SSO. I presume that he will be much better prepared for that.


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