The SOSL steppes up with the Romantic Masterworks

By A.S.H. Smyth

In a programme frankly unimaginable by any orchestra not at the very top of its game, it was depressing to see the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka open last Sunday’s concert with a return to ‘form’, another slack and soupy rendition of their own national anthem.

The second national anthem was rather rousing – the Norwegian, in honour of the sponsors of this gig, the unfailingly generous Norwegian Embassy. Alas, not so the two extracts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1 which followed.

‘Morning’ was lacklustre and naïve. ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, though it entertained a certain glowering momentum (built, fool-proof, into the score), had a different misfiring cluster of notes in every punctuating chord. The result was not evocative. (It was not even, in the technical sense, noteworthy.)
In the grand scheme of things it seems unlikely that the Norwegian government really expects a rousingly pro-Scando musical kick-back every time they sponsor an event; but, by this ham-fisted gesture of appeasement, right on the Ambassador’s nose, the SOSL surely turned the outside chance of causing offence into an iron-clad certainty. (Grieg himself famously came to hate his Norgie-nostalgia smorgasfjord: so programme notes highlighting that Peer Gynt is now principally the stuff of bad TV jingles seemed an unnecessary low blow to the evening’s benefactors.)

As the orchestra plinked and prepped for the Rachmaninov and soloist Harsha Abeyaratne settled at The Ugliest Concert Grand Ever (obscuring half the orchestra) I’d swear the woman next to me crossed herself – though she could have been swatting a mosquito.

But the Piano Concerto No.1 (F#m) was melodious enough. Abeyaratne was technically solid, and there was fire in his heart (if no lower). Not every note was right, but most were righteously intended. And Rachmaninov himself, with his mauling paws, wouldn’t begrudge a mere mortal a couple of clipped keys so long as the mortal was giving it both tins of elbow grease.

Of greater concern was that the pianist seemed to be constrained by the orchestra, as though waiting for them (rather unfair since the orchestra’s parts are significantly easier than his). Ananda Dabare, at the podium for the evening, ought to have done more to cut the orchestral cloth according to Abeyaratne’s pocket.

At times, the ‘Vivace-Moderato’ first movement exhibited the loose tonal ‘spread’ of a ‘30s movie soundtrack (at one point disparate sections conspired to rejoin the piano simultaneously flat and sharp). But for their part(s), the orchestra, too, turned out to have guts when they really needed ‘em, and even the brass section – cf. ‘horns’ – stayed on track, on key and on cue. The ensemble was altogether better in the ‘Andante’ (slow movement, innit), and there was a good bite on the beginning of the ‘Allegro Vivace’ third. Romanticism being the not-so-light motif for the evening, the Rachmaninov landed its punch squarely enough. But it’s a small step from ‘hitting home’ to ‘domestic abuse’ – and expectations for Tchaikovsky’s megalithic Symphony No 4 were, I confess, not high.

Things began badly, the opening brass blast absent of any clarity or commitment, the whole section apparently lacking the will to screw their courage to the blowing place. By the second phrase, though, our huntsmen had found their mojo, and matters began to progress.

Barring a ‘moment’ early on, it was clear that serious rehearsal had gone into this piece. Though the brass section could hardly be accused of overconfidence, the trumpets gave a good lead and at least they all generally sounded like they knew where they were (‘the Most Improved Player Award goes to…’). The brass-and-timpani motif is a focal point of this movement, and they nailed it. The woodwind mini-solos were very tidy, and the strings performed a steady underpinning role with their expansive Russian theme.

Nineteen minutes in (ahem…), there was inter-movement applause. For once, I didn’t mind.
Kudos to the oboe soloist who opened the song-like ‘Andantino’ second movement, and to the cellos (still consistently the most assured unit in the SOSL, with a uniform and sonorous style) who bolstered him with their warm lyricism. The short slow movement struck just the right balance between mellifluous snatches of descant and rolling-Voltava-style melody.

The words ‘Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato. Allegro.’ are not ones string-players care to see in any combination, and the third movement loomed ominously (a potential pizz.-fall, so to speak). The strings don’t set hair to gut the entire time, instead having to pluck away at a hectic pace – which they didn’t, quite. But the woodwind kept things perky; the brass were pugnacious; and the whole was notably accurate. No great dynamic range, mind, but otherwise pragmatically managed.

The strings, wilting a little, wisely ceded the high ground of the ‘Finale’ to the trumpets, who valiantly led the charge to the finishing line. Even the horns got in on the act, and the cumulative zeal was such that I found myself actually grinning. In the good way.

Thus did this mighty symphony reach its seismic conclusion and – guess what? Not a single soul stood up, and the clapping died out as soon as Dabare left the stage. Audiences can be so contrary.
Having struck themselves in the face with the gauntlet of the Tchaikovsky, the SOSL did the only honourable thing and picked it up and got to grips with it. Just. I gather the last three months have been… adventurous, and one might humbly suggest that the next concert not feature Mahler’s 9th. For the time being, however, congratulations are in order.

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