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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.

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.