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The Philadelphia Orchestra ends its Fortieth Anniversary China Tour with Wagner and Brahms in Macao June 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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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
Allegro non troppo

Adagio non troppo

Allegretto grazioso

Allegro con spirito

 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.

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