Founded in 1806, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra (Luzerner Sinfonieorchester) is Switzerland's oldest orchestra. It makes its home at the Lucerne Cultural and Congress Centre (KKL Luzern), playing in its concert hall with acoustics designed by Russell Johnson, who was also responsible for Esplanade Concert Hall. It was thus of great interest to hear a foreign orchestra performing in the Singapore venue that is a “first cousin” to its residence.
Conducted by exciting American conductor James Gaffigan, there was enough on display in the brief Euryanthe Overture by Carl Maria von Weber, serving as curtain-raiser, to demonstrate a first rate orchestra's credentials. The homogeneous sound from the strings was a delight, warm and burnished, complementing well winds and brass for what made for ideal balance. When it came to a quieter passage for just eight violins, the results were no less fine.
The orchestra also provided perfect accompaniment to young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili in Grieg's Piano Concerto. Nowhere did ensemble play second fiddle to the fiery and glamourous soloist who had the requisite technique to raise hell and melt glaciers. From opening chords and octave cascade, the piano's first subject to Lisztian cadenza, this was a nuanced performance that possessed both flowing lyricism and outright virtuosity.
In the slow movement, where one might have expected her to let rip in the chordal climax, she held back and the outcome was all the better for it. The bounding Norwegian dance finale was a hell-for-leather ride, the sight further enhanced by her hibiscus red gown and wildly flailing jet-black locks. Her two encores were diametrical opposites, the Precipitato finale of Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata taken at a scarcely believable break-neck speed and the ultimate grace of a Handel-Kempff Minuet.
It was wholly the orchestra's show in the second half. Dvorak's Eighth Symphony on tour does not quite have the same glamour of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, or even the Czech composer's own New World Symphony. That was all moot with Gaffigan's cogent and totally idiomatic view of an overplayed repertoire work with his charges responding accordingly.
The mellow massed cello song that constituted its first bars were gorgeously voiced, thus setting a high bar to the rest of the symphony which unfolded most majestically. Both the 1st and 2nd movements rose to stirring climaxes, the latter beginning with excellent solo and ensemble work from the woodwinds.
The carefree lilt in the 3rd movement's Slavonic dance was sheer delight, and the trumpet call to arms in the march-like finale provided the necessary rousing. Its build up of volume and impetus made for one of Dvorak's most thrilling symphonic moments, and so it transpired, was not once but twice all the way to its blazing conclusion.
Gaffigan and his orchestra bade farewell with the final two movements from Dvorak's American Suite played in reverse order. The Allegro's ethnic-styled folkdance was followed by the nostalgic Andante with its lovely oboe solo, further proof of the orchestra's undoubted prowess.