quantity (and quality): Shaham.
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Theatre, March 4
Violin fans and violinists (some with telltale instrument
cases in hand) flocked to Proctor’s last week to take a chance
on Gil Shaham playing an unfamiliar concerto. Shaham is enough
of an assured quantity that it was a safe gamble; the concerto,
a 1958 composition by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao,
certainly rewarded the attendees.
the Butterfly Lovers Concerto, it became immensely
popular in China, but was suppressed during Mao’s Cultural
Revolution. Rediscovered by a new generation, it has gone
on to gain many more fans.
Intended as an expression of a popular legend through Chinese
musical and theatrical devices, while using a Western orchestra,
it remains a product of its time: rooted in the orchestral
sound of Hollywood music from the late ’50s, itself the last
holdout of the late-romantic Tchaikovsky-esque tradition.
The concerto makes no pretense about its origins, going so
far as to quote the opening of that most romantic of romantic
warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (“Tonight
We Love”), which ties in with the theme of the work: a depiction
of a folk legend describing the ill-starred love of a couple
who unite only after death, as a pair of butterflies.
Drawing from traditions of Chinese folk theater and opera,
it incorporates some of the microtonal ornamentation common
to such music, but in such a way as to seem perfectly sensible
to Western ears. Shaham negotiated the tricky passages with
The single-movement work is in several sections, beginning
sweetly with flute and oboe, then bringing in a chorus of
strings before the entrance of the solo violin. Naturally,
the melodies are pentatonic, a quality that sits nicely against
the swell of the full orchestra in the work’s more demonstrative,
DeMille-epic moments (interestingly, film composer Jerome
Moross used a more or less pentatonic scale to capture a sense
of the American West when he wrote the music for The Big
Shaham blazed his way through lyrical cadenzas, tricky fast-passage
work in what sounded like a barn dance (reminiscent of Louis
Gruenberg’s Violin Concerto), and was especially effective
sharing solo lines with orchestra cellist Nella Hunkins in
passages intended to depict the two lovers.
At times overblown, at times in-your-face sentimental, the
Butterfly Lovers Concerto is certainly an effective
piece, and proved a worthy vehicle for its star soloist.
The orchestra itself was star of the rest of the program,
which began with Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan,
giving conductor Lan Shui the opportunity to show his forces
in a challenging work. The brass section, hidden in back,
rose flawlessly to the demands.
Once we got past some overwrought rubato at the opening, Lan’s
interpretation was crisp and straightforward. As a performer,
he’s of the Leonard Bernstein you-can’t-dance-too-much-on-the-podium
school, but you can’t argue with the results.
Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 gets overshadowed by the two
symphonies that followed, probably because it doesn’t have
the free-for-all quality of its successors. But it’s still
a charming work that displays the composer’s melodic and rhythmic
gifts, a love song to his native Bohemia.
Good string sound is of the essence, and this orchestra has
creamy uniformity of tone. I wished at times for something
grittier, more biting, which would have helped accent the
dramatic transitions in the work. Nice woodwind work as flute
and clarinet introduced the first movement’s second theme,
balancing a somber feeling that informs the beginning and
The easygoing second movement displayed Lan’s keen sense of
dynamic balance, while the scherzo, firmly rooted in Czech
dances, was given its full measure of propulsive fun. We’re
back to more ambiguous emotional grounds in the finale, which
nevertheless goes through a growth and transformation that
needs to be thoughtfully sculpted in performance. Here again,
conductor and orchestra showed their mettle. Met with a generous
ovation, they encored with Brahms’s rousing Hungarian Dance
This is the first U.S. tour for a group that is celebrating
its 25th anniversary; those of us able to sample it during
its few stops were fortunate.