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Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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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. 

The Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia

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.

Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach October 12, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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October 9th, 2011  
Concert Hall,Hong KongCultural Centre
Johannes Brahms Tragic Overture, Op. 81
Franz Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, ‘Unfinished’
  Allegro moderato
  Andante con moto
Gustav Mahler 11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
ViennaPhilharmonic Orchestra
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.

A mixed bag of old and new with the Montréal Symphony October 10, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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The last time I was in the Salle de Wilfred-Pelletier in the Place des Arts, Montréal, I sat underneath the balcony which extends almost halfway into the hall.  The acoustics was so restrictive that I found it hard to concentrate on the music being played.

Fortunately, on October 3rd, I sat on the balcony itself.  Under the baton of music director Kent Nagano, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra opened the evening with Sur le même accord, nocturne for violin and orchestra, by contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux.  The expansiveness and resonance of the acoustics, by contrast, was refreshing.

Sur le même accord is a mood piece, with the solo violin gliding smoothly over the orchestral accompaniment, much like a skater on ice.  Although the work is dedicated to the soloist of the evening, Anne-Sophie Mutter, the solo part does not seem that demanding of virtuosity, perhaps leaving Mutter little opportunity to showcase her technical mastery of the instrument.  Nevertheless, soloist and orchestra worked well together to present the relaxed tone of a walk in the park.

The second work on the programme, the violin concerto In tempus Praesens by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is no doubt a work of extreme intensity, well developed intellectuality and a tour de force of tonal, melodic, harmonic, temporal and rhythmic exploration.  Compared with Sur le même accord, it also offers Mutter a great deal of room for showing off her technical prowess.

Gulbaidulina’s concerto is a trek through the Siberian wasteland in the depth of winter.  The absence of the violins in the orchestra heightens the tension between it and the soloist – a tension the programme notes characterise as that between “the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of a Dostoevskian Russia”.  The wailing first notes soon progress to a rhythm much like the trotting of a horse, with the undulating strings leading to a climax accentuated by loud percussion.

The value of the concerto may be high as a didactic exploration of the esoteric aspects of composition, but in the concert hall it is somewhat a misfit.  Its idiom is arcane, and its structure obscure.  Nevertheless, the performance received a standing ovation, reaffirming my depressing suspicion that I was the only obtuse one in the crowd.

The worldliness of Mahler came to the rescue in the second half of the programme.  Although his fifth symphony has a feeling of optimism overall, it opens with a funeral march.  Despite intermittent moments of hope and triumph, the opening trumpet call keeps returning to remind us of the menace of death.  Although the tone of the orchestra was somewhat diffuse, it handled the contrasting moods well.

The brass and shivering strings of the second movement, at first delivering a sense of shock and anguish, soon gives way to idyllic passages in the winds, presaging the unbridled romanticism of Erich Korngold and Hollywood epics such as Gone With the Wind.  Under Nagano, the Montréal Symphony’s tone was confident and forceful.  Its handling of the contrasts and mood swings was skilful.

 

The orchestra’s real mastery of the subject matter was most obvious in delivering the humour and irony in the scherzo.  Opening with a light dance tune, the horns and winds pave the way to an elegant waltz, with glimpses of darkness and nostalgia emerging in the bassoon.  The return of the waltz is short-lived, rapidly degenerating into horror, almost like terrorists breaking up a party.

The use of the adagietto in Visconti’s movie Death in Venice has perhaps unjustly flouted it as the personification of decadence.  According to Norman Lebrecht in Why Mahler, it is “about love and the renunciation of love…in which the same few notes convey love and loss, commitment and retraction…”  Thus, says Lebrecht, “the meaning depends how it is performed, how a conductor shapes and stretches the movement”.

It is here, perhaps, Nagano shows his weakness most.  His detached and controlled style did not quite bring out the wistfulness of the movement.  Under him, the sequence of notes stayed as it was – a sequence of notes – rather than an emotionally-charged melodic idea.

As a conductor, Kent Nagano is down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, and effective.  His performances are orderly, measured and even-tempered.  This is perhaps why he excelled in Dutilleux and Gubaidulina, but fell somewhat short in Mahler.

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