By Loh Jee Kean
As part of the Singapore Arts Festival highlights this year, the 120-strong Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra gave the audience in Singapore a rare treat by presenting an all-Finnish repertoire on the 8th June 2002, the second of three concerts performed in Singapore.
What made the concert distinct from the other two evenings was its programme. The first half of the concert comprised of works by two living Finnish composers – Einojuhani Rautavaara and the conductor himself, Leif Segerstam. The opening piece, Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light, explored various orchestral textures and tone colours, and these two elements created the moments of tension throughout the piece. The exposition of the first movement is an example of a cinematic cliché with encompassing lush moments of Romantic gestures typical of Rachmaninoff. The first movement clearly develops itself through the organic sound textures which grow and metamorphose into different gestures; in a way, these ideas were communicated quite clearly in the performance. To give an analogy, the experience one got when listening to this work is akin to looking through a microscope: watching a singular cell growing, multiply, breaking apart, and eventually coming together. In contrast to the first movement, the angst and biting sonorities in the second movement exemplifies the Modernist in Rautavaara. Rhythmic precision was, however, lacking in this movement and this hinders the idea of “organised chaos.” On a more forgiving note, however, the players’ ability to control the tone in this movement is worth mentioning; at least this spared the audience from any harsh instrumental noises.
The inclusion of works by living composers in a programme is slowly becoming a trend on the concert platforms in Singapore. What made this concert a rarity of the rarities was the Singapore premiere of Segerstam’s (the conductor) Symphony No. 63 "SING-A-PÅ-RE, Sing! Apor: E!!...” To further reduce the probability of such a phenomenon, the piece was conductorless. It would be interesting to know that this is just one of the many works that fall under the category of “Orchestral Works without Conductor.” Written during the Easter weekend of year 2002, it may be good to know that this is just one of the many tongue-in-cheek titles that have been given to his works. To quote Segerstam from his programme notes:
...of the name Singapore translated into a combined Euro-language of English and Swedish, the so-called ‘Swenglish,’ the musicians or music-gladiators are in fact – in the opening and once later towards the end – singing the tone A on (on = på in Swedish) the tone RE as well as yelling the high E like Homo Sapiens Apes (Apor).
The piece truly lives up to its gimmicky title, and I was wondering why many of the audience did not catch the joke when the orchestra was singing/ tuning their voices by singing the vowel “ae” (A) during their usual tuning to A=440Mhz given by the oboist before performing the next piece. Since the beginning of the concert, I had been trying to figure out why the three percussionists were elevated and placed behind the orchestra, next to the pipe organ of Victoria Concert Hall. This question was answered when the audience got to witness some of their actions, or rather, feats which would not have been seen if percussionists were on the same level as the rest of the orchestra. The percussionist bowing the suspended cymbal and vibraphone; another with an oversized clapper big enough to slam a couple of flies in one hit. To add on to the list of visual gimmicks, we had players standing up in the middle of the piece, fiddling wildly; a group of unsynchronised violinists (or violent-nists) bowing (or sawing) their instruments randomly; a pair of small speakers on stage left near the cellist and double-bassist that was hooked up to the pianist to create a delayed effect. Though the piece is mathematically constructed using what Segerstam called the “pi-rhythm,” this idea did not come across as strongly as the original idea put forth by its title. The point of reference and stability in the piece happens when the A-note is articulated, either instrumentally or vocally. Overall, the piece was a little superficial and made me wonder how much thought process was actually put into the composition.
The second half of the programme was Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 by Jean Sibelius. Although Segerstam did manage to get a robust sound out of the orchestra, there was not enough power to bring the entire concert hall down. The musical chemistry was missing between the different parts of the orchestra, and this was evident, for example, in the dialogues between trumpets and the French horns in the first movement. Speaking of National idiom, the interpretation of the work lacked character, especially in the concluding movement. Apart from the imprecise entries in many instances, especially the opening of the last movement, the dance-like rhythm was not convincing at all because of little attention to rhythmic precision. Overall, the development of ideas in the work was muddy, and most of the fortissimo moments were out of context.
After the usual curtain calls, the orchestra treated the moderately enthusiastic audience to a short encore piece, Alla Marcia from 'Karelia Suite' by Sibelius. Ironically, the encore sounded a lot more rehearsed than the main programme. Maybe the players were glad that the concert had come to an end? Or maybe they think that they are finally playing something which most of the audience would know?
In terms of technicality, it did not take very long in the first half for the brass section to show their weakness in their intonation, explicated in the motivic passages in Rautavaara’s piece. This tuning problem was further highlighted when the E-minor triads were played by the brass section in Sibelius’ work; I am sure most of us would agree that Sibelius would not have engaged microtonal writing for the brass section in the scoring of his Symphony. In terms of tone, the violins were quite disappointing as they sounded shallow, and one wished for a much meatier and warmer tone from a relatively large section. Having heard the brilliant concert by the NHK Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit just a few months ago, I cannot help but compare these two foreign orchestras. In terms of technical precision, as well as intellectual engagement, the Helsinki Philharmonic pales in comparison to the breath-taking performance conjured by Dutoit’s magic baton.
The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra plays at the Victoria Concert Hall on 7-9 Jun 2002 (8pm). Tickets are available from SISTIC.