Spam is not always this amusing… August 4, 2013Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Language.
Tags: CitiBank, CitiGroup, Hormel Foods Corporation, spam, Vikram Pandit
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For those of you old enough to be around before personal computers became a permanent fixture in everyday life, spam had a different meaning.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of spam is apparently an abbreviation of “spiced ham”.
As the Internet started to take hold of our lives, the word became a pariah in polite company, taking on the meaning of unwanted electronic messages sent to a large number of recipients at the same time.
In 1975, the Monty Python comedy team produced a movie called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you’re interested, you can watch it here. The movie further spawned a Broadway musical in 2005 called Spamalot, which claims to be “lovingly ripped off” from the movie.
Most of us are not amused when we receive spam, which often jams our mailbox and prevents us from getting to the genuine messages of importance, but I’ve recently received a message from one Pandit Vikram, who claims to be “in charge of Sovereign Wealth Funds” in Citibank. You may recall that no so long ago, a gentleman by the name of Vikram Pandit was CEO of CitiGroup.
The fun doesn’t stop here. Mr Vikram promises that he can arrange an interest-free grant to me of US$10.5 million, which “will stay on CitiBank Books for 36 months” and then written off.
Mr Vikram goes on to say that Sovereign Wealth Funds in his charge usually remain dormant for years “because some leaders of the United Kingdom who made the initial deposits intended to steal the funds after leaving office”.
Unfortunately, Mr Vikram says, these depositors “are either kicked out or killed in office”. That’s why, he continues, the funds “go into dormant mode”.
And what does this privilege of an interest free grant (someone needs to prompt Mr Vikram to look up the word “grant” in the dictionary) cost me? 40% of the US$10.5 million, apparently. This is how much of the “grant” I need to “set aside” for Mr Vikram.
What am I to do? I need to send Mr Vikram all my personal details and a scanned copy of my “identity”.
If you’re interested in having your identity stolen for US$6.3 million (60% of $10.5 million, after setting aside 40% for Mr Vikram), please let me know and I will give you his personal email and telephone number.
The Philadelphia Orchestra ends its Fortieth Anniversary China Tour with Wagner and Brahms in Macao June 11, 2013Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: Brahms, Lohengrin, Macao, Philadelphia Orchestra, Tannhäuser, Venetian Theatre, Wagner
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|June 9th, 2013|
|Venetian Theatre, Macao|
|Richard Wagner||Overture to Tannhäuser|
|Johannes Brahms||Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73|
|The Philadelphia Orchestra|
|Conductor: Donald Runnicles|
A casino is an unlikely venue for an orchestral performance, and it’s a mystery why the Philadelphia Orchestra chose to stop at the Venetian Theatre on its 2013 Residency and Fortieth Anniversary Tour of China. In 1973, at the request of President Nixon, the orchestra had been the first to perform in China upon the establishment of diplomatic relations. According to an article in the New York Times, nine players in the orchestra today were apparently on the first tour. For them, the two-week visit must bring back fond memories of a very different China. Conductor Donald Runnicles hit a nostalgic nerve when he talked about how members of the orchestra were about to go their separate ways the next day after two weeks of bonding.
The Venetian Theatre is a grand auditorium, probably a hundred feet from floor to ceiling, with plush seats found in modern movie theatres rather than concert halls. I can imagine the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera having a field day sliding all the way from the middle of the hall to the stage. Yet its acoustics are unkind to a symphonic orchestra, the combined effect of a flat hard ceiling and plenty of empty space creating delayed reverberations. This created a cushion effect on the music, sometimes even muffling it.
Call him a serial philanderer, bigot or megalomaniac – for he was probably all of these – but there’s no denying that Richard Wagner possessed a vision which drove him to write operas on a breathtakingly gargantuan scale that bowl over even the most disinterested concertgoer. His oeuvre is more than enough for a lifetime’s study, and I have long given up the quest to understand the complex Ring Cycle. Yet the overtures to many of his operas are gems of orchestral grand gestures and expressive languor. The Overture to Tannhäuser is a case in point. The opening chorale on clarinets, bassoons and horns, in a sustained murmuring tone, develops into a hauntingly lyrical passage on strings. An interlude on woodwinds blossoms into a majestic brass flourish underpinned by insistent triplets on strings. Scurrying string dashes pave the way for more march-like grand gestures, before a period of pensive placidity sets in with sprinklings of solo violin. All the trappings of the orchestra then converge to bring the overture to a climactic close in a flurry of nervous energy. In a nutshell, the music captures the story of Tannhäuser’s entrapment by Venus, and his odious behaviour which ruptures any hope Elisabeth may hold for his love, causing her to die of despair.
Sitting in the front row, I heard the strings and woodwinds with crystalline clarity. The delayed echo in the hall softened the sharp edges and made the strings sound quite lush. Unfortunately, the brass section at the back became second cousins and was hardly able to flex its usual muscles in bringing out the chest-puffing and tear-swelling grandeur so characteristic of Wagner.
Compared with his first symphony, which took a decade and a half to complete, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D was a relatively painless composition, which he finished in four months. Unlike the first, its bucolic sentiments give it lightness not typical of his works. His approach to music is diametrically opposed to the wanton romanticism espoused by Wagner. As the cellos and horns at the opening die down, a quiet passage gives way to a boat ride down the undulating river on strings tutti. Many have pointed to the similarity of the material in the first movement to the lullaby from his Op. 49, exposing a childlike appreciation of nature. The second movement is restless but not depressing, peaceful but not lethargic. Pizzicato cellos and a lilting oboe in the third movement introduce a light skip around the fields, while the fourth movement sounds like a locomotive cranking up speed as it leaves the station. Brahms eventually throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix in a race of frenetic energy to close.
In contrast to the Tannhäuser Overture, the strings in the Brahms symphony seem to have lost a little lustre. The woodwinds continued to shine, while the horns and trombones emerged from obscurity. Maintaining Brahms’ stately character, Donald Runnicles nevertheless brings out the lighter moments with panache, driving the strings to near breaking point to a triumphant close.
Concluding a relatively short programme, the orchestra played the brief Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with sprightly brass in full blast from beginning to end. With smiles of satisfaction, the Philadelphia Orchestra bid China farewell by betting that their performance of Wagner and Brahms at the Venetian Theatre would leave indelible memories, and they did.
Tags: Beethoven, Chopin, Gluck, James Rhodes, Liszt, Schumann, Sir David Tang, The China Club
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When James Rhodes holds court in a soiree billed as “An Unconventional Recital” at the China Club in the Old Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, we are entitled to expect some fun. And we were not disappointed last night.
As we seated ourselves in the dining hall cleared for the evening, Club founder Sir David Tang expounded his views on how concerts should last no more than an hour, and promised the evening would start promptly at 7 pm and finish at 8 pm.
On the dot at 7 pm, James strode into the hall and, instead of chatting about what he was going to perform – a practice which has become his trademark – he went straight to the piano and started playing a piece by Rachmaninov (the Prelude in C sharp minor, I think) – an item not on the programme – with electric intensity. He explained that he had “Rachmaninov” tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic, which could well say “Elton John” for all he knows. Down-to-earth, charming and your regular guy next door: that’s what James Rhodes is all about.
Most of us think of Beethoven as the angry deaf composer. Yet barely out of his teens he had been nearly beaten to death by his alcoholic father. He single-handedly took classical music into the romantic period with a “big R” – for the first time, here was someone writing not for the church or the state, but for himself.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, is an odd work. Almost halfway through his 32 sonatas, it marks the crucial point at which he became convinced he was going deaf. Yet the work shows no obvious depression, nor is it given over to much brooding. The four movements are hardly distinguishable, running more or less into each other, linked often by material that keeps re-appearing in different guises.
James Rhodes’ interpretation was polished, subdued and exploratory; the left hand gently tapping a persistently repetitive rhythm, while the right scaling the sounds of nature.
For someone whose works remain stubbornly in play throughout the world, Chopin was apparently not a very nice person, ruined by a disastrous relationship with George Sand. His Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor is the more popular among the four he wrote. The signature opening of the work consists of quiet arpeggios followed by emphatic chords. The rest then flows mellifluously in roller-coaster fashion. In James’ hands, the Scherzo sounded warm and friendly, but a little staid, as if he was trying too hard to de-romanticise it. I heard a few extraneous notes too.
Responding to our clamour for encores, James surprised us with what sounded like Beethoven’s Colonel Bogey Dudley Moore used to mischievously play, except I think he added snippets of the “Moonlight” Sonata towards the end. Next up was an excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a lilting work that hangs in the air like little water vapours, which he dedicated to Sir David. To finish off, he served up a piece he claimed not to have played for a long time, a transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s Spring Night, one of 160 songs he composed during the year he courted Clara Wieck.
As we savoured the rapid outcry at the end of Schumann’s love song, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for Sir David’s generosity in bringing James to Hong Kong and opening the China Club specially for him on a Sunday night. Most of all, we were proud to count James as a friend who happens to be an excellent pianist, rather than a virtuoso we put on a pedestal.
Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: Alan Gilbert, Arvo Pärt, Bachtrack, Bavarian State Opera, Beethoven, Berlioz, Carnegie Hall, Charles Dutoit, Cirque Éloize, Classical Music, Concerts, Daphnis and Chloe, Denis Matsuev, Edo de Waart, Garrick Ohlsson, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Jaap van Zweden, Jason Lai, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Johannes Wildner, Jun Märkl, Kent Nagano, Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, La Maison Symphonique de Montreal, La Mer, Leif Segerstam, Lonodon, Mahler, Montreal, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, New York, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Place des Arts, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Ring Cycle, Royal Festival Hall, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Simon Rattle, Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky Competition, Wagner, Yeol Um Son
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It’s been a busy couple of months for concert-going. I was fortunate enough to visit six different concert halls in five cities to sample performances by some of the world’s finest musicians.
During a stop in London on April 24th, I saw Leif Segerstam conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev in London’s Royal Festival Hall. I found Segerstam a bit of a plodder, in a programme of works by Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – “respectful, subtle and down-to-earth”, as I said in my review for Bachtrack.
It was my first real stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the end of April, and was delighted it coincided with the city’s eponymous orchestra performing in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts under Sir Simon Rattle. I was keen to find out how Maestro Rattle would fare with an American orchestra going through Chapter 11, having swept the world off its feet with the Berlin Philharmonic. In a programme of Brahms, Webern and Schumann, he gave me some interesting insights into works which shared similar origins but took different paths of development.
In October 2010, I saw Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s dynamic Music Director, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. My heart goes out to him, as he must feel the breath of Mahler down his neck, the famous composer having been his predecessor as conductor of the orchestra a century ago. The performance in the Carnegie Hall on May 2nd was impressive enough, and a reviewer taking copious notes in the next seat remarked that the concert was “pretty good”, but I preferred what I heard some one and a half years previously.
For many years, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, part of the Place des Arts complex in the heart of Montréal, was home to the city’s world-famous orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal – OSM). Having steadied itself under Maestro Kent Nagano after reeling from a few years of turmoil with the departure of Charles Dutoit, who brought OSM international recognition, the orchestra seems to have picked up the pieces and pulled itself together.
I was lucky to get into the OSM’s concert at the end of May featuring Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, not often performed as a symphonic work in its entirety. For a change, I sat in the balcony this time in the orchestra’s new home, La Maison Symphonique de Montréal. I was never a fan of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, where at one point I heard only muffled sound under the balcony covering half of the lower level of the hall; I was equally unimpressed by La Maison. With a large number of wooden surfaces, it sounded too much like an echo chamber.
I had it on good authority that Kent Nagano had just returned on the morning of the concert with the OSM from Munich, where he had been working on the première of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Bavarian State Opera. He showed no sign of fatigue as he raced his way through a fine programme of Berlioz and Shostakovich, in addition to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé, the latter featuring Cirque Éloize.
Closer to home, I had my first experience with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, smaller than the Hong Kong Philharmonic but with a fine reputation for innovation and audience development. It was quite refreshing to hear conductor Jason Lai in fairly demanding and well-known works by Arvo Pärt, Mozart and Brahms. The Sinfonietta and piano soloist Yeol Um Son, 2nd prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, challenged very high world standards and did well.
The change of guard at the Hong Kong Philharmonic is already taking place. Outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Edo de Waart said his farewell in an emotional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in April, and the music director designate, Jaap van Zweden, arrives later in the year for the new season. The two concerts I heard in the past couple of months featured guest conductors Johannes Wildner and Jun Märkl, the former’s lacklustre interpretation of Debussy’s La Mer having been saved by the soloist Garrick Ohlsson, while the latter put in a truly exceptional performance of works by French composers with clear Spanish themes in collaboration with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
I can’t imagine my lucky streak with world-class orchestras and soloists will continue for long, but I’ll relish it while it lasts.
Tags: Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Manfred Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchakovsky, Viktoria Postnikova
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The programme billed him as “The Legend”. Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdesvensky – tongue-twister of a name that gave me lots of trouble as an upstart radio announcer years ago – led the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky programme on Saturday March 17, 2012. Joining him in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44 was his wife, pianist Viktoria Postnikova. The Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, took up the entire second half of the programme. The experience was like walking on a thick carpet – very comfortable, but a little wobbly. Read my full review at Bachtrack.
The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
Tags: Hong Kong Arts Festival, Oscar Wilde, Rose Theatre Kingston, Shakespeare
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.
The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.
It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary. With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it. That is not to belittle Rose Kingston. Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.
I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile. Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.
Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts. Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.
Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother. Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly. Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.
The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context. The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed. The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies. The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.
The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me. Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.
|The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin
Sunday 5th February, 2012
Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts
Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival
The Bicentenary of Franz Liszt October 22, 2011Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: Berlioz, Indiana University, last.fm, Liszt, Naxos, Paganini, Rich DiSilvio, symphonic poem, Toobbox, transcriptions, Wagner
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Two hundred years ago today, Liszt Ferenc, better known to us as Franz Liszt, was born to Marie Anna Lager and Ádám Liszt in the Kingdom of Hungary. In the service of Prince Esterházy, his father played a number of instruments and counted Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven as personal acquaintances.
As talented musicians are wont to do, Liszt started playing the piano early, and appeared in concerts at age 9. He was to develop friendships with leading musicians of his time, including Berlioz, Paganini, Hans von Bulow and Wagner, who influenced him and were influenced by him. For example, Paganini’s superb skills on the violin spurred Liszt on to become a virtuoso piano player.
For a good part of his life, Liszt travelled frequently and more or less divided his time among Rome, Weimar and Budapest, playing music and directing musical events. His biggest legacy is his compositions, which can be divided into two types: transcriptions of works by other composers and those of his own creation.
Although having been vaguely aware of his piano works for a long time, I am a relative newcomer to Liszt’s music, and certainly not qualified to discuss it in any detail. But I do know this much: his piano music can be technically daunting, and he practically invented the symphonic poem format.
As I tried to find out more, I came across some interesting sources. As always, the first stop for any information is Wikipedia, which has a long entry on him:
From there you can navigate to a page which contains a full list of his compositions:
Allmusic is a good source of information about popular music for me, but it seems to be lacking in classical music. Nevertheless, its entry on Liszt is a good starting point for further investigation:
Naxos, the pioneer of affordable classical music CDs, has a long list of items on its catalogue with recordings of Liszt’s music:
I recently stumbled upon an excellent web site, apparently maintained by author Rich DiSilvio:
On this site, not only are there detailed sections with commentary on his biography and his role in the development of music, there is also has a list of recommended recordings and bibliography. What I find most fascinating is its list of links to other sites with information relevant to the composer:
Of course, it’s easy to find a list of videos of Liszt’s music on Youtube. With the help of Toobbox.com, I have compiled a list of my own personal playlist of Youtube videos:
And to whet your appetite further, you can create your own radio channel of music similar to that of LIszt on last.fm:
But if you insist on generating a list of videos on Youtube, here it is:
If you are anywhere in Indiana from October 27th to November 13th, you may want to attend one of the concerts the Indiana University is putting on to celebrate Liszt’s 200th birthday:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources. I’m sure you will come across a lot of other sites with interesting information. If you find one, drop me a line and let me know.
Seniors in the entertainment industry are going strong October 17, 2011Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
Tags: And I Love You So, Arctic Monkeys, Baby boomers, Chuck Berry, Clive Dunn, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Grandad, It's Impossible, My Way, Perry Como, rock and roll, seniors, Tony Bennett, Vera Lynn
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No sooner had I finished uploading my blog post about a crop of young female pop talent came the news that veteran singer Tony Bennett had broken a record: at the end of September he became the oldest singer to have a number one hit on the Billboard top albums chart. Hermione Hoby of the Guardian in the UK says the album sounds like “a fantasy birthday party in full swing”; and Mikael Wood in the LA Times says “it’s a beautiful bummer to hear Winehouse do her best Billie Holiday…”
In fact, as far as chart success goes, 2011 seems to be the year of the seniors. Earlier in the month, Doris Day had just become the oldest artist to have reached the UK top 10 with new material. Unlike Bennett, whose album consists of material recorded recently, Day didn’t go into the studio to record new material. Her CD My Heart consists of tracks recorded between 1951 and 1994. Even then, at 87, she is two years older than Bennett, for the record. Reviewing the album for the Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick says: “If someone stepped up on X Factor singing like this, they’d be unbeatable.”
Bennett and Day are not the only senior artists in recent years to taste chart success. In September 2009, the BBC reported that Dame Vera Lynn, a favourite entertainer for the British forces during World War II, became the “oldest living artist” to top the UK album charts. She was 92 at the time, and the album in question was We’ll Meet Again – The Very Best of Vera Lynn. Again, this was not new material, but remarkable as it had knocked Arctic Monkeys off the top.
Other artists, of course, have topped the charts at an advanced age. Actor Clive Dunn, famous for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, was 51 when he had a surprise hit called Grandad , which topped the UK chart in 1971.
Frank Sinatra was almost 54 when his hit My Way spent 75 weeks from April 1969 to September 1971 among the top 40 in the UK, but it never went to number one. Perry Como’s It’s Impossible in February 1971 became his first song to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in more than 12 years, peaking at number ten. He was 59. Later in the decade, in 1973, when he was 61, his song And I Love You So reached number 3 on the UK singles chart.
In an age of rapid technological advances favouring the young, it’s good to see that seniors in some industries are still showing the way, with help, no doubt, from supporters among the growing legion of baby boomers. One of the pioneers of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, turns 85 on October 18th. I have it on good authority that he usually performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.
In the entertainment business, the seniors are going strong.
Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach October 12, 2011Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: Brahms, Christoph Eschenbach, Classical Music, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler, Schubert, Tragic Overture, Vienna Philharmonic
|October 9th, 2011|
|Concert Hall,Hong KongCultural Centre|
|Johannes Brahms||Tragic Overture, Op. 81|
|Franz Schubert||Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, ‘Unfinished’|
|Andante con moto|
|Gustav Mahler||11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn|
|Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach|
It’s no surprise that the programme for Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to Hong Kong should consist of well-known works by composers closely related to its home city; it is quite something else to hear the orchestra’s unique interpretation of these works.
Together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic is probably the pre-eminent custodian of the Germanic tradition in the classical music repertoire. Apart from conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s trademark black tunic making him look like a character out of Star Trek, everything about the orchestra is traditional – period instruments, straight-down-the-line interpretation, and respect for the composers’ intentions.
Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81, supposedly a companion to the jubilant Academic Festival Overture, is dark, brooding and sometimes turbulent, but not tragic in the sense of death and destruction. In the hands of a less sensitive and capable conductor, it can easily become 15 minutes of unwieldy thickness. Under the stewardship of Christoph Eschenbach and the Vienna Philharmonic, however, the overture was sufficiently depressing, but not overwhelmingly distraught. They managed to wind their way through the various moods with enough contrast and sensitivity to make the work interesting. The gentleness of the sound produced by the orchestra’s period instruments also helped reduce the sense of ponderousness. The lower strings, in particular, were lush without being dense.
We may never know whether Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is genuinely “unfinished”. All we do know is that his friend Anselm Hünterbrenner didn’t tell anyone about it until decades after his death, and that he had the score for only two full movements. Given Schubert’s first six symphonies, and the grandeur of the 9th, the Symphony No. 8 seems to be a “transitional” work – between the early attempts conforming to the classical symphonic form to the artistic breakthrough of the “Great” C Major symphony.
Even when in its most depressed state, Schubert’s music sighs, rather than weeps, as Brahms’ does; or wails, as Mahler’s. The Vienna Philharmonic’s approach was almost gingerly. The first movement began with a nondescript theme on the lower strings, followed by a clear statement by oboes and clarinets. There was good articulation of contrast between glow and gloom without high drama, and of lyricism without sentimentality.
The horns and the oboes stood out in the second movement, which featured two main themes, one light and resigned, and the other emphatic. Even in delivering the airy parts of the movement, the orchestra maintained a sense of dignity. In the more serious parts, soothing tenderness underlined the gravity.
Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the orchestra in 11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Mahler. Des Knaben, a collection of folk poems by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, was a rich source of inspiration for Mahler, providing material for his second, third and fourth symphonies. Compared with his later song symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, Des Knaben’s orchestration is light, giving the voice parts due exposure.
Goerne’s smooth and fluid tone flowed like water in a stream, with a range that reached deep into the territory of the bass. He manipulated inflections effectively to suit the different emotional contents of the songs, from the sombre death march of Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Night Song) to the overt humour of Lob Des hohen Verstandes (Praise of High Intelligence), which reminded me of Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja from Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Deserving particular mention were Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhein Legend), in which Goerne delicately shaped an air of magic and idyllic beauty, and Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fine trumpets blow), in which he glided through a glowing melody of lulling romance. I only wish that his diction was a little clearer.
The Vienna Philharmonic celebrated the success of its visit with an encore of Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, a staple in the orchestra’s repertoire. With his somewhat robotic conducting style, Christoph Eschenbach has brought the orchestra into the 21st century while preserving its precious heritage.