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Assured quantity (and quality): Shaham.

A Belated Debut
By B.A. Nilsson

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Proctor’s 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.

Titled 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 breathtaking ease.

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 Country).

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 end.

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 No. 6.

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.

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