As Asian orchestras strive for higher profiles and recognition in the West, it helps to have an established Western star along for the ride. In its five-concert tour of Europe this month, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra has several: Arabella Steinbacher, Jan Vogler and Gil Shaham, who joined the orchestra for its appearance in the Prague Spring festival.

Gil Shaham © Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý
Gil Shaham
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Shahamʼs riveting rendition of Mendelssohnʼs Violin Concerto in E minor proved to be the highlight of the evening. Otherwise, the SSO turned in a relatively mundane performance, with an ambitious program revealing more of its aspirations than apparent skills. Thereʼs a tendency to cut Asian orchestras some cultural slack – after all, theyʼre learning and playing foreign music far from its source. But given the number of Caucasian faces in the Singapore orchestra, and its claims to global standing, judging it by Western standards seems appropriate and fair.

A new work by Chinese composer Chen Zhangyi, of an ethereal symphony, offered a promising start. A series of airy, sparkling textures that culminate in a sudden surge with just a hint of dissonance, the piece is cinematic in both sound and scope, like an excursion through a fairy tale landscape. With Music Director Lan Shui at the podium, the orchestra showed sensitivity and a capacity for a strongly visual language, creating colorful images and atmospherics.

For the Mendelssohn concerto, the orchestra stayed mostly subdued and out of the way, to good effect. Shaham was brilliant, playing with dazzling technical virtuosity and just the right strain of emotion in an elegant, masterful performance. His cadenza in the first movement was like angels dancing on the head of a pin. Equally impressive was the golden, intimate tone Shaham created in the cavernous reaches of Smetana Hall.

Lan Shui © Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý
Lan Shui
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Overreaching for the sentimentality in the piece, the orchestra had its lush moments but too often the music took on a maudlin, even melodramatic quality. And in contrast to the opener, the sound was thick, almost devoid of any details or subtlety. Shui and his players clearly understand the music and know what to do with it. But their execution, at least in this performance, seldom rose above that of a solid, mid-level Western orchestra, playing competently but without any real sense of dynamics and depth.

Schoenbergʼs Verklärte Nacht showcased Shuiʼs expert ability at crafting slow fades in and out to open and close pieces, but not much more than that. The body of the piece lacked bite and substance, and again seemed to be straining for emotional impact, with the strings positively syrupy at times. There were moments when the orchestra seemed to right itself and strike the right balance of passion and sophistication, but mostly the music was bland and overwrought, embodying all the pitfalls of playing an orchestral version of a Romantic work originally composed for a string sextet.

Ravelʼs La Valse brought renewed vibrancy and color, but the sound was once again plagued by a lack of detail. While the top melodies carried the dance rhythms beautifully, the fine touches critical to bringing the piece to full fruition were either missing or buried, surfacing only in occasional flashes.

For an encore, the orchestra offered an exuberant version of the suite from Straussʼ Der Rosenkavalier, which was on the regular program in other cities. This seems to be its strength – light, melodic fare traditionally played at pops concerts. The distinction had little meaning for the audience, which responded with over-the-top enthusiasm – much more applause than truly accomplished orchestras like, for example, Berlin Staatskapelle have received at this yearʼs festival. Which says more about the audiences than the performances. But as soloists like Shaham continue to demonstrate, there is a great deal of power and value in building cultural bridges.