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Horses for courses

SOSL Première Concert

Like a veteran sprinter in a distance race, the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka was quickly away, found stride of genuine grace and quality, travelled well, and then, all-too-predictably, weakened through the latter furlongs until eventually, but barely, making the finish.

They came out of the gate with Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, a movingly ‘vocal’ piece reminiscent of the great C.19th opera overtures (Act 3, the heroine dying), decorated with flourishes of the composer’s freely-mined Bohemian heritage. With (re-)visiting conductor Keiko Kobayashi in the saddle,* the woodwind led confidently (someone had had a bee in his bassoon during the Anthem…) and the orchestra rose sweetly to greet Dushy Perera’s cello entry.

Perera played courageously, rattling around in nth position, deft and chromatic, displaying much elbow and spiritedly vaulting the hurdles of potential fastidiousness. The more elegiac moments – in that soaring (and sawing) high-romantic mode – were worthy of a frame or two in Citizen Kane. None of which is to mention the feat of playing a 45-minute concerto from memory.

Some of the solo-tutti interchanges were not exactly 100%, nor were the chasseur horn moments any too convincing (though there was one startlingly mellifluous phrase). Albeit the SOSL horn section still isn’t nimble enough – and not a patch on the trumpets who went at it in the rare moments they were allowed to get the brass between their teeth – they were audibly present and generally coherent, which is a step. Generally, though, rough patches were masked by the energetic hocus-pocus of Dvorak in mischievous mood.

The Austro-Hungarian was famously into his folk tunes, but he can’t have intended the opening of the lyrical ‘Adagio’ to sound quite so much like a peasant-village squeeze-box band. The orchestra were reasonably – unusually – agile in their down-shifts from volcanic to balletic, but, in truth, the SOSL is simply not accurate enough to play very quietly.

Nor, indeed, is it big enough to play very loudly – and after a solid and cohesive start both orchestra and soloist struggled in the demanding ‘Finale’ of this monsterwerk (one might blame Dvorak: the piece has more false stops than Lord of the Rings). It was left to the trumpets, the bright and shining stars of the evening, to spur the heaving flanks of the tired beast into one last triumphal gallop. [I’m going to put the equine thing out to pasture now. One-trick ponies rarely go the distance, and it wouldn’t do to be caught flogging a dead horse metaphor.]

Dushy Perera is a front-rank cellist, and the orchestra, for the most part, did a decent job of keeping it down while she played. But for all that she couldn’t quite carry the day against the massed ranks. It’s not enough merely to put the soloist out a foot or two in front of the band: something more, I fear, is needed.

Carl Maria von Weber and his Clarinet Concerto No.1 are (in every sense but the geographical) pretty much exactly halfway between Mozart and Beethoven – and pretty much prime territory for the SOSL.

Guest clarinettist Ado Kihara is, it turns out, also a dancer. As in, a panto dwarf. Or a slightly pissed giraffe. Or just someone who needs the loo. It’s distracting (I had notes to take, but I felt for those obliged to watch). Sound unseen, though, Kihara is technically dazzling: a crisp, light tone (no honking), and immaculate entries with no more zeal to them than was actually required. His practically flawless musicianship hauled the orchestra into his orbit, and when they weren’t putting the sturm to his frenetic drang (or vice versa) they demonstrated a new-found sympathy and restraint with regard to volume.

The slow middle movement never really got going, alas (little point trying to stop the disruptive clapping between movements if the soloist is going to get precious and spend three minutes tinkering with his instrument – and then come back in sharp), and it was marred by orchestral infelicities. I kept thinking that the horns were pulling it off, but then someone would crack a note or underplay an entry: this mournful habit, alas, concluding the ‘Adagio’ (no applause). Kihara’s captivating rendition of the sprightly, elfin ‘Rondo’, though, was a joyous riot – if not, perhaps, so far beyond the realms of expectation as to warrant a rather unedifying encore with two pieces still to go.

One of those pieces was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or ‘the saddest music ever’, as the programme unwisely tagged it. The Barber is only ever played when someone dies (Butch Cassidy; JFK; Willem Dafoe in Platoon) or there’s a major Barber anniversary (so… death). It’s depressing on the best of days. Here, spliced, without context, into the graceful cheer of the Weber and the wild exuberance of what followed (see below), it was enough, emotionally speaking, to give you the bends.

It’s also not actually all that simple to play – and it bore the dread hallmarks (cf. ‘scars’) of being easy-and-therefore-under-rehearsed. Kobayashi had rightly strategised that slightly too quick trumps rather too slow (and/or flagging), but at a cost to Barber’s dignified anguish. And she couldn’t do much about the fact that the strings simply played the wrong notes. Was that screaming sound someone half a bar ahead, or the agony of the music being pulled apart? (Tip: it was both.)

The curtain lowerer – and this year’s ‘première’, incongruously stuck on the end – was Copland’s El Salón México. Populist as it may have been by the standards of his avant-garde contemporaries, this polytonal box of tricks was too big a risk for the SOSL – or at least a risk they were less than keen to take. To play modernist, even modern-ish, stuff you gotta have what our Mexican friends would call cojones. Or at least the faith of the audience that you know what you’re doing. To wit (actual post-mortem conversation, overheard):

‘Were the woodwind playing wrong notes at the start?’
‘No, I think that’s how the piece is written.’
‘Oh. We just assumed…’

QED. Mis-programmed after the tortured and torturous Barber, El Salón México – lacking in charisma, commitment, or even the requisite variations in tempo (and who could blame Kobayashi for not wanting to take that chance?) – came out more hotel mezzanine than mojito-ravaged dance-hall.

Though there were little sparks of flamboyance (Naveen Fernando’s trumpet was a veritable flare in a string of fairy lights), Copland is beyond SOSL’s imaginative remit. Individual units went off alright, but the orchestra was not at peace with the crazy-paved modular structure of the music. Nor are many of Copland’s chordal sections quite as ‘modern’ as they were made to sound. And nice as it is to see the imported soloist modestly joining his fellow musicians for the closing number, Ado Kihara’s coolly comic input ended up sticking out like the healthy thumb on a rather sore hand.

There was a standing ovation, but – as it transpired – only from three people. The rest were heading for the door.

* While it is good – vital, even – for SOSL to be exposed to external influences and talent, the aim of these interactions must surely be to develop the orchestra’s core skills and competences. It seems perverse, therefore, that the SOSL has four home-grown conductors in its stable, all of them working with the orchestra on a regular basis (and across several sections, too, which can only foster a healthy and competitive spread of expertise). But between the month just ended and June of next year, four concerts in all, only one will be conducted by an SOSL stalwart, and that is the Christmas sing-along. This is no way to build durable infrastructure.

For the Sunday Times (SL). Who also chose to run this, presumably by way of satirical contrast.

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