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James Rhodes holds court in a soiree at the China Club in Hong Kong March 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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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, 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.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic turns light entertainment into high artistic accomplishment April 14, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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April 9th, 2011

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Rameau              Dardanus suite

Mozart                Così fan tutte: Una donna a quindici anni

Le nozze di Figaro: Giunse alfin il momento…Deh vieni non tardar

Così fan tutte: Temerari, sortite…Come scoglio

Exsultate Jubilate, K165

Beethoven         Symphony No. 2 in D, op 36

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor           Jan Willem de Vriend

Soprano               Mara Mastalir

Giving its concert on April 9th the subtitle “Sing Mozart Sing” and promoting it with a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the mischievous genius with his mouth half open in a wry smile, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra probably intended the audience to expect an evening of cheerful and light entertainment.  The programming suited this intention down to a tee.  Progressing from the baroque to the classical, it was chronologically correct, and temperamentally appropriate.

Opening the concert was a rarely heard work by French baroque composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, the suite from his opera Dardanus.  Although the opera itself is a tragedy, replete with mythological deities in acts of war, the suite consists of bright and jolly dances.  Conductor Jan Willem de Vriend applied a light touch well suited to the dainty elegance of the music, and the orchestra responded well with a fresh and vibrant tone.

The eight sections of the suite vary greatly in tempo and rhythm, and the orchestra handled the changes in pace with confidence and ease.  From the slow, measured Ouverture, to the Tambourin, akin to Morris dancing, and the spirited Bruit de Guerre pour Entr’acte, representing ferocious military action, the orchestra never missed a beat, as it were.  The Chaconne closed this part of the programme with a stop-start melody of immense grace and polish.

Sandwiched between the two orchestral pieces in the programme were four vocal selections by Mozart, two arias from the opera Così fan tutte, one from Le nozze di Figaro and the motet Exsultate Jubilate.  Soloist Mara Mastalir curtsied deeply upon coming onstage in a black gown and long black gloves, winning over the audience immediately.  With a voice more mature than one would expect of someone her age – she is not even thirty – her tone is lush and she displayed superb control.   Smoothly gliding from the top to the bottom of her vocal range, confidently skating through coloratura and lyricism, she is clearly a master rather than a servant of the demanding material.  The variety of matching facial expressions accentuated the dramatic impact of the arias.

As Despina in Così fan tutte and Susanna Le nozze di Figaro, both vivacious and flirting maids, Mastalir was flippant but not flaunting.  She could have been a little more teasing as the wily Susanna and more forceful in her dramatic rejection of the Albanians as Fiordiligi, one of the sisters in Così fan tutte, but these were small blemishes.

Returning after the intermission in a bright red gown with a diamond-studded girdle, she was decidedly resplendent.  Launching herself vigorously into the first part of the motet Exsultate Jubilate, she changed gear almost unnoticeably into the gentle middle movement, finally rounding off triumphantly in the concluding movement Alleluia, cementing her performance as the centrepiece of the evening.

Beethoven wrote his second symphony during a particularly difficult period in his life, as he confronted the increasingly disturbing signs of deafness and contemplated suicide.  Yet the work is full of joyous optimism, humorous twists and mischievous charm.  After the brooding opening passage, the orchestra gave the first movement a full-blown buoyant treatment.  Tiptoeing on the somewhat elusive melodies in the second movement, it underlined the bucolic atmosphere prescient of the sixth symphony.

The third movement, a scherzo marked allegro, was graceful and refined, with the prancing woodwinds adding colour to the festive mood.  The bold and forceful opening bars of the finale were resolute and unequivocal, developing meticulously into a crescendo of cheerful triumph, bringing the concert to a gratifying close.

Three cheers to conductor Jan Willem de Vriend and soprano Mara Mastalir for turning an evening intended to be light entertainment into one of high artistic accomplishment, through thoughtful application of their skills and talent, and smart programming.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack)