A lavish opening for Voilah! 2019
Although never positioned as such, it feels as if the underlying theme of the individual battling insurmountable odds runs through the latest SSO Gala’s set. Opening the 2019 Voilah! France Singapore Festival, the concert invites internationally celebrated conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy along with French cellist Gautier Capuçon to perform two pieces by Schumann, and a Tchaikovsky symphony to finish.
The gala opened with Schumann’s Manfred Overture Op. 115. Inspired by Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, the piece paints a sonic portrait of the moment protagonist Manfred is overcome by guilt over an unspeakable secret sin with regards to the death of his beloved Astarte. There is a haunting darkness to the overture as Manfred struggles against these internal demons that threaten to consume him entirely, casting spells and invoking spirits to help him forget his crime. Played in an E-flat minor key, one is enraptured by the purposeful sense of obsession and repetition we see in the first theme, as conductor Ashkenazy’s body moves and flows along with the melody, while his wrist movements are sharp and sudden, stabbing and jabbing, as the orchestra brings Manfred’s painful torment to life. There is a restlessness felt throughout the 12 minute piece that seems to suggest Manfred’s actions as he moves to fight off his inner demons, whilst a more lyrical element later on suggests visions of the deceased Astarte still haunting him. The darkness of the piece is all-consuming, powerful and irredeemable, as it closes on two pianissimo chords, hinting at a fare darker consequence for Manfred’s future.
The SSO then performs Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129. Cellist Gautier Capuçon arrives onstage in a brilliant, dark blue suit, to much fanfare, and seats himself near the front, as the star of this cello concerto. Schumann, known for his own struggles with mental illness, and pours it into this piece. One imagines the soloist (Capuçon), much like how the earlier Manfred is struggling, to be similarly battling his own issues within, yet far more positive in its execution as a one about triumph rather than failure. The piece opens with a glorious, uplifting melody, yet one cannot help but feel the heartache residing just beneath, attempting to stay strong amidst the pain. Reflecting Schumann’s own brief moments of hope amidst his depression, the melody only continues to soar from here, daring to hope in C major. With the second movement, we hear a more wistful tone as the hope seems to recede again, with a pizzicato accompaniment, before a second cello joins in with Capuçon, whose cello overflows with emotion with each note. This is a a reminder that the cellist Capuçon is not alone, this theme strengthened only further with the third movement with the urgent, fervent arrival of winds and lower strings in a cadenza to further support the soloist. We come to a conclusion as the piece soars with hope once again, and one cannot help but feel uplifted, as Capuçon graces the audiences with two more short solos thereafter.
Choosing to end on the most epic note however, the orchestra finishes the set with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op. 36. A grand, 44 minute piece comprising 4 distinct movements, much of the credit here goes to conductor Ashkenazy as he guides the orchestra swiftly and ably to navigate each movement. Reflectively of Tchaikovsky’s own tumultuous relationship with two women, the symphony regards itself with the idea of the irresistible draw of fate and desire for happiness and relief. We open with a fanfare in the very first movement, high energy and hinting at fleeting moments of happiness that hit us momentarily each time, grasping, grabbing at some semblance of permanence.
But this fades as we move to the second movement, opening with a slow, mournful oboe solo. We think back to memories of the past, and how the regrets are what weigh us down as oboe battles the hopeful strings, before the third movement attempts to remedy these fears with its playful sound – the string section playing pizzicato by plucking their string and creating a jaunty, staggered soundscape reminiscent of the chaos of the human mind, a constant stream of images, emotions and thoughts that pass through. We end on the fourth movement with the inclusion of cymbals, a need and a determination to find happiness amidst the fates suggesting otherwise, to learn to be glad. We are reminded constantly of the fleeting, impermanent happiness of the first movement, and there is an ongoing battle between that and the symphony’s rush of sound in an attempt to drown each other out.
Who wins out in this battle of grim determination to live on against the constant temptation to just give in? The answer remains ambiguous, as we conclude with an everlasting battle of fervent happiness in the symphony against the undercurrent of impermanence from the first movement that continues long after the final note as humanity continues to strive for happiness against all odds. That, in essence, is the message behind this SSO Gala, as we are reminded that we are caught, constantly in the eternal struggle for happiness. We fight as hard as we can even when the darkest of moments seem to close in on us, a feeling that Ashkenazy, Capuçon and the SSO have brought to life in this soaring concert of hope against despair to open Voilah! 2019.
Vladimir Ashkenazy and Gautier Capuçon played on 3rd October 2019 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
Voilah! 2019 runs from 3rd October to 17th November 2019 around Singapore. For more information on the festival and the full programme, visit their website at www.voilah.sg.