As part of the vOilah! France Singapore Festival 2020, members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of works by Debussy, Ravel and Ibert conducted by Darrell Ang. It may be a misnomer to characterize a short concert presented in an empty hall as a “festival”, but Ang and the small contingent of Singapore musicians did their level best to deliver the goods.

Darrell Ang conducts the Singapore Symphony
© Singapore Symphony

Singapore native Ang is an uncommonly effective interpreter of these scores. Considering that he’s a past winner of the Besançon Young Conductors’ Competition and up until recently served as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, it’s perhaps to be expected that he’s well-acquainted with the French idiom. And indeed, Maestro Ang does this kind of music exceptionally well. 

For the two major works on the program, Ang wisely chose two pieces that lend themselves nicely to a chamber orchestra-sized presentation. Ravel's Ma mère l’Oye suite was a real standout item, which in Ang’s deft hands was given a magical performance. Using an ensemble of fewer than 25 musicians meant that solo lines emerged effortlessly and beautifully from the orchestral fabric, with particularly winsome passages from the oboe, clarinet and flute in the Pavane, Petit-Poucet and Laideronnette movements. Throughout the suite, celesta and other splashes of color from the percussion were crystalline in their effect and beautifully balanced against the smaller ensemble. The concluding Jardin féerique was equally enchanting.

Importantly, Ang’s sense of tempi were spot-on in the Ravel – never dragging, but instead moving along without sounding in any way rushed. Too many conductors miss the mark, sounding somnolent while losing track of the innate rhythm. In this sense, Ang’s vision of the piece was quite reminiscent of how great conductors of yesteryear like Paul Paray treated the score. Hearing Ma mère l’Oye like this in the era of coronavirus turned out to be a revelation, making one think that the music is actually more effective if presented with reduced forces. The same can be said for the Ibert Divertissement which followed the Ravel. In the Ibert, the 20-odd players came closer to sounding like an actual theatre pit orchestra than I’ve ever heard before in this piece. 

Indeed, what Ibert was driving at in his spirited and vivacious score was fully realized in this Singapore performance. Clarinet and other woodwinds were saucy and sassy, while the trumpet and trombone delivered the complete Wow Factor (literally as well as figuratively) – particularly in the Waltz and Finale. The bottom line:  this performance was a success on every level.

Unfortunately, the opening selection on the program – André Caplet’s arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune – was not quite as effective. Especially in the Caplet arrangement, this is music that benefits from full orchestral treatment. Today’s chamber music-sized performance was okay, but little more than that. Still, nothing could detract from the very special presentation of the Ravel and Ibert works in which both Ang and the players did themselves proud.

This performance was reviewed from the Sistic video stream