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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.

Mid Summer Modern: Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and Paul Zukofsky July 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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July 26th, 2011

Loke Yew Hall, The University of Hong Kong

Igor Stravinsky Septet (1952-53)




Milton Babbitt Composition For Four Instruments (1948)

Arnold Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29 (1924-26)

Ouverture [Overture]

Tanzchritte [Dance Steps]

Thema mit Variationen [Theme with variations]

Gigue [Gigue]

Hong Kong New Music Ensemble

Conductor: Paul Zukofsky

As a student of philosophy, I dread formal logic; as a student of literature, I dread structuralism; as a lover of music, I dread serialism. It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble’s concert of 20th century works by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Arnold Schoenberg, the first in the Hell Hot New Music Festival 2011.

As it turned out, the thoughtful programming helped the audience find its way more easily into what might sound “chaotic” to the untrained ear, as one listener put it during the post-concert discussion. Conductor Paul Zukofsky’s advice on learning to appreciate this type of music is to keep an open mind and listen repeatedly.

The New Music Ensemble struck a beautiful and balanced tone in the opening work, Stravinsky’s Septet, completed in 1953, which is chronologically the most recent composition among the three on the programme. Said to be a transition from the composer’s hitherto neo-classical style into serialism in later works, the Septet is charming, short and sweet.

The Allegro is almost in sonata form, with a seven-note theme that appears again and again in different guises. The Passacaglia is dainty and elegant, and the Ensemble’s treatment of the dialogue between clarinet and cello launching the movement highlighted these qualities. The viola opens the Gigue with a confident statement that gradually builds up into an exposition for all the instruments. Mr Zukofsky’s direction kept the instruments in fine balance, with none dominating the work.

The obituary in the New York Times on Milton Babbitt when he passed away early in 2011 described him as “an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse”. I found his Composition For Four Instruments quaint and interesting. A rather jerky opening on clarinet paved the way for the flute played with a tremolo similar to the purring of a cat, and a succession of near monologues or cadenzas by the individual instruments seldom playing together.

Musicologists have a field day analysing the structure of the work and its exposition of twelve-tone serialism, but it makes quite heavy demands on the listener to “connect the dots”. In the end, stretching the feline analogy, I decided that it could best be likened to four nimble cats jumping up and down vying for the attention of their owner. There is good reason why Babbitt didn’t name the work a “quartet” but simply a “composition for four instruments”. The composer is said to have described it as “applying the pitch operations of the twelve-tone system to non-pitch elements”. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem for the general listener.

The final work in the programme, Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29, chronologically the most ancient of the three, returned to a style, which although quite distinct even from that of contemporaries such as Richard Strauss, remains approachable for the general audience. Without intimate knowledge of the fine structural intricacies of the twelve-tone system, I was fascinated by its vibrancy and almost playfulness. The colour the bass bassoon added to the piece particularly intrigued me.

The Overture: Allegretto, opening with a rapid-fire, urgent theme and an emphatic rhythm, traverses an undulating landscape without a dull moment. Lively dance rhythms continued in the second movement Tanzchritte (Dance Steps). In the third movement, Theme and Variations, the pace slowed somewhat, with the wind instruments and piano being slightly more assertive. Like the Stravinsky Septet, the closing movement is a Gigue, opening with a lively and almost chirpy tune on clarinet, and after a happy saunter, stops rather abruptly in suspense.

Mr Zukofsky’s sensitive touch and the tender harmony of the New Music Ensemble made the evening of modern works a most enjoyable musical experience. They deserve kudos for helping bring such important works to the general public, particularly in the year of the Hong Kong University’s centenary.

Celebrating, and mourning, Mahler with Norman Lebrecht May 18, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Reading.
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A century ago today, the world lost a great conductor, Gustav Mahler.  Now ensconced with the Met and Philharmonic in New York, having hailed from an illustrious career in Budapest, Hamburg, and Vienna, mentor to Bruno Walter, he was the focus of nascent mass media and other hangers on who chronicled the details of his last months.

It is debatable, however, that the world recognised that it had also lost a great composer.  There certainly was interest in his works, which were frequently performed, but which received mixed reviews.  Apart from patronage by a few dedicated conductors, his music stayed almost silent between the two World Wars.

I first came into contact with Mahler’s works as a teenager more interested in Black Sabbath, Neil Young and Jethro Tull.  Sure, I had marvelled at the pleasant melodies of Mozart’s last symphonies and the
breath-taking grandeur of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, but Mahler?  I went see Helen Watts and Robert Tear in Das Lied von der Erde only because the student ticket was free.

Even as a classical music presenter on the radio, I remained fairly straight-laced in my tastes.  Handel was standard fare, as his Water Music Suite was the station’s opening tune, before the introduction of 24-hour broadcasting.  I stuck to the well-trodden paths of the three B’s and giants of the classical and romantic periods, occasionally dipping my toes into Debussy and Ravel, and only because a schoolmate won a prize playing Jeux d’eau.

Mahler is intimidating.  His major works all last over an hour, some substantially more.  With my short attention span, I wondered how I could garner enough stamina to sit through a performance.  I was thus happy to let my ignorance persist for several decades, until the hype started building up to his double anniversary, beginning with the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2010.

With trepidation, I decided to find out a little more.  Why did I know so little about this composer over whom everybody was hyperventilating?  My guide was Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht, published probably to coincide with Mahler’s anniversaries.

Irrespective of whether Lebrecht’s adulation of Mahler is hyperbolic exuberance or passionate devotion, there is no doubt that he spent a good part of his life researching the man and his music.  His quest began as accidental rebellion against the musical tide of the day: “My musical tastes were turning away from the confrontational sounds of my own generation to challenging complexities of classical music”, he says in the introduction.

The book is neatly divided into four parts.  The first, “Why Mahler”, is subtitled “Some frequently asked questions”.  It outlines Lebrecht’s views on the importance of Mahler not only to the history of music, but also to humanity by referring to the universality of his appeal and the immediacy of the ideas his music communicates.  The questions range from deep philosophical ones such as “Can Mahler change your life” to frivolous ones such as “Did Mahler ski?”  By the way, the answer to the first is a re-sounding yes; and to the latter, probably no.

Lebrecht recounts how Mikhail Gorbachev, then supreme leader of the then Soviet Union, heard Mahler’s fifth symphony for the first time with his wife during one of his last days in office.  The performance under the baton of Claudio Abbado so moved them that Gorbachev had the feeling that Mahler’s music “somehow touched our situation, about the period of perestroika [reconstruction] with all its passions and struggles”.

The second part of the book, in twelve chapters, charts Mahler’s progress from an abandoned Jew born in an area of dubious Czech and German heritage, to a rising star as the conductor of the Vienna Opera and eventually the New York Philharmonic.  It also tells of Mahler’s hapless infatuations with women of all shades, culminating in an aborted attempt at elopement with Marion von Weber, daughter-in-law of Carl Maria and a Jewish mother of three, and his marriage to the mercurial Alma Schindler.

Mahler was the classic alpha male, a punctilious and overbearing martinet with an electric presence who suffered from mild inferiority complex on account of his Jewish origin.  From imploring Hans von Bülow to take him on as a pupil, to coming of age as a fiery conductor, he was an intense and neurotic perfectionist driven to distraction, driving his orchestras up the wall, reducing his opera divas to tears and working himself up to a frenzy in performance.

Yet nobody doubted he felt deeply: “Most people shun sorrow; Mahler embraces it.  Sorrow is his retreat, the place he calls home when he is Lost to the World. Rather than avoid pain, he seeks it as a creative incubus.”

Lebrecht cleverly weaves Mahler’s major compositions into the complex strands of his life.  Its perspective is a cross between paparazzi following a celebrity and radio presenter analysing and assessing his contribution to music.  He maintains a lively pace throughout, and uses language that is descriptive and evocative.

For me, the third part of the book is probably the most useful.  “A Question of Interpretation” gives an account of the conductors who have recorded Mahler’s symphonies, and comments on recordings of each.  Despite his meticulousness as a conductor, Mahler left a lot open to interpretation as a composer: “Where Beethoven and Brahms wrote metronome speeds in their scores, Mahler called the tick-tock device ‘inadequate and practically worthless’ and left the measurement of time to the maestro.”

Part IV, “Finding the Key to a Private Space”, is advice on how to approach Mahler for personal enjoyment: “If you take a new listener to a Mahler concert, talk to them first about one trademark moment – the child’s funeral in the First Symphony, the offstage ensemble in the Second, the introductory ironics in the Third…” 

Why Mahler is significant for its contribution to the body of reference on a very important composer of the last century, and for me it has particular significance as the first book I read entirely electronically.  For Lebrecht, delving into Mahler is a quest to understand and make sense of his personal universe.  It’s self-actualisation, and his book a paean to music as cosmos.  For me, it’s an excellent guide to a composer I now yearn to know more.  Rest in peace, Gustav, and may you live forever.

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

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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)


Yundi and the San Francisco Symphony de-romanticise Tchaikovsky April 4, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco, California

Friday April 1st, 2011

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

San Francisco Symphony

Herbert Blomstedt Conductor

Yundi Soloist

I had long thought that Tchaikovsky was a pioneer of decadent romanticism.  Many of his melodies have become well-hummed signature tunes of amorous longing in popular music, as in Caterina Valente’s Tonight We Love.

The San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt with soloist Yundi (formerly known as Yundi Li) in the piano concerto number one in B flat minor put paid to that idea for good.

Tall, lanky, with sharp features and a full body of wavy hair, Yundi cuts a dashing figure as a teenage heartthrob.  The standing ovation that followed his performance, I suspect, was due in no small measure to his Korean soap-opera star looks.  That is not to say he is not a competent pianist.  On the contrary, he is very much a technical virtuoso.  Yet I wonder whether underneath the pyrotechnics, the breakneck speed and the fluency in his performance, there was genuine empathy with the emotional intentions of Tchaikovsky in creating the work.

Quite apart from the repressive environment of conservative sexual mores in 19th century Russia, Tchaikovsky suffered traumatic ups and downs in his emotional life.  After being jilted in an infatuation with the soprano Désirée Artôt, his marriage to Antonina Miliukova drove him to the brink of nervous breakdown.  These disastrous experiences with the opposite sex led to a slow coming to terms with his homosexuality: “…nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature,” as he wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly.

Some commentators have surmised that Tchaikovsky secretly coded Artôt’s name into the concerto.  Whether or not this conjecture has any merit, the work effuses unmistakable passion.  The melodic progression rises and falls like white foam in a stormy sea, straining to break out as Dr. Bruce Banner does to his clothes when he turns into the green giant in The Incredible Hulk.

In his focus on the technical challenges of the concerto, Yundi glossed over the emotional contours of the work, leaving the audience yearning for a more intimate connection with the composer.  His technical virtuosity was like a sheet of steel over which the emotional hot water of the work flowed.  The heat was quickly cooled, and there was no attachment.

The orchestral accompaniment was compartmentalised, with each section executing its part competently but hardly welding into a cohesive whole.  The tone was jagged, sometimes even strident, and the colour was lacklustre.  The rhythm was at times inappropriately pointed.  I know something was awry when I heard, although for only a fleeting moment, snippets of a Mozart divertimento in the third movement.

I mustn’t be too harsh, for Yundi made his name as an interpreter of Chopin.  His performance in the Carnegie Hall of Chopin and Mussorgsky last year was certainly much more sensitive.  Perhaps he is better at handling muted hankering than explosive outbursts.

Compared with Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Sibelius’ symphony number 2 is more measured with structural clarity.  The work seems to trace the germination of a small idea into triumphant maturity.  As if taking us on a tour of a forest in Finland, with thick trees allowing only small streams of light at a time, the elusive melodic machinations stretch forth and withdraw in a tug-of-war with our imagination.

Blomstedt launched into the tame and understated opening theme of thirds with a full frontal assault, and throughout the work there was a lack of contrast in intensity between the soft and loud passages.  Like a shy young debutante, the best of the thematic material in the symphony needs to be teased out gradually.  Blomstedt didn’t seem too interested in the subtlety.

The orchestra did excel in the passages where frenzied trills on the strings gave way to a single statement in the woodwinds, the oboe in the second movement and the bassoon in the third.  In addition to the horns and brass providing the impetus that frog-marched the melody into triumph, the strings also handled the suspended development of the theme in the last movement with suitable restraint, inveigling it gradually into full bloom.

The San Francisco Symphony dedicated its concert to victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Opening the concert, conductor Herbert Blomstedt led the orchestra in Japan’s national anthem.  This extra-curricular addition was probably the work I could least find fault with, on account mainly of its unfamiliarity.

Opera Australia’s The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best March 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Opera.
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Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre

Sydney, Australia

Thursday March 24th, 2011

The Barber of Seville Gioachino Rossini

Opera Australia

Anthony Legge, Conductor

Elijah Moshinsky, Director

Opera Australia Chorus

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

José Carbó, Baritone: Figaro

Dominica Matthews, Mezzo-soprano: Rosina

John Longmuir, Tenor: Count Almaviva

Jud Arthur, Bass-baritone: Basilio

Andrew Moran, Baritone: Dr. Bartolo

Opera Australia’s production of the Rossini magnum opus The Barber of Seville is a period piece, featuring an era a century later than the one in which it was composed.  In this revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production, director Cathy Dadd masterfully transports the action from the classical period of the 1810s to the silent movies of the 1910s.

The production stays meticulously faithful to the era, with the men wearing boaters and gaiters, and the leading woman breaking into Charleston once in a while.  Even the libretto is adapted to make reference to John McCormack, the Irish tenor whose career reached its height in the second decade of the 20th century.

The story is ridiculous enough.  An aspiring young aristocrat falls in love with the ward of a fuddy-duddy doctor, and disguises himself as a drunken soldier and music teacher to win the love-match against the guardian, with the town’s dogsbody providing assistance along the way.  Based on the first play in the trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville was written 30 years after Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but is its narrative prequel.  The central character is the wily Figaro.

Let’s face it, Rossini’s opera buffa has all the elements of farce susceptible to dramatic manipulation of the highest order, but this production stands out because of its perfect execution.  An incredible plot, ridiculous disguises, unlikely, larger-than-life characters and double-takes are masterfully brought together in a melodramatic silent-movie treatment by an outstanding cast effortlessly working together.

This version of The Barber of Seville is a visual feast.  It opens with a set of miniature terraced houses, replete with mechanical marionettes and sprinkled with disproportionally tall palm trees stretching to an arched moon in the sky.  This undersize Iberian resort gives way to a massive and sturdy cross-section of Dr Bartolo’s duplex residence-cum-surgery that fills the entire stage for the rest of the evening.

The characters run freely up and down the stairs and in and out of the various rooms without the set swaying at all.  This ingenious contraption creates a split-screen effect, with simultaneous action taking place in different parts of the set.  As Lindoro and Dr Bartolo battle it out in the sitting room, for example, the nurse Berta comically manipulates the neck-brace of a hapless patient in the surgery, culminating in a bout of gin-and-vodka binge drinking.

In comedy, timing is everything, and rarely have I seen such perfect timing and rapport among all members of the cast.  They flawlessly move from one antic to another, falling over each other throughout the set without missing a beat in the demanding musical synchronisation, even in the rapid-fire tongue-twisting choral recitatives.

John Longmuir as Lindoro and Count Almaviva is somewhat overly chubby and too much of an effeminate aesthete for my liking, especially in the opening scene in which he appears in a white suit with a red buttonhole.  His voice is somewhat tentative and thin at the beginning, easily upstaged by Figaro in his grand entry from the back of the auditorium.  Fortunately, it strengthens as the show progresses, eventually hitting all the high notes with effortless clarity.

José Carbó as Figaro is every inch the suave, mercenary opportunist ready to profit from all situations in which he finds himself: “my mind is like a volcano…at the thought of money,” he declares.  He effectively accentuates his rich baritone voice with solid projections and precise diction.

Dominica Matthews’ Rosina combines good acting with some fine coloratura singing.  Her voice is silky and flexible.  Andrew Moran as Dr Bartolo, the delusionary, ageing dunce with grand amorous designs on his young ward, exudes moronic gullibility. Jud Arthur as Rosina’s music teacher Don Basilio is a resonant bass.

The varied performance of the minor characters, in arias that resemble throwaway lines in a comedy, adds to the ingeniousness of the production.  Bartolo’s buxom housekeeper Berta has only one memorable aria in the entire opera, and Teresa La Rocca carries it off to a breathtaking climax.

Also worthy of mention is Christopher Hillier.  Although his Ambrogio, Bartolo’s servant, has no singing part, his zombie-like makeup, deadpan expression and sluggish movements stir up a great deal of mirth among the audience.  I wonder, though, whether the cabaret make-up for the rest of the cast, with everyone appearing in a lifeless pallor, is necessary.

It may sound belittling of the orchestra, but in comparison with the captivating visual and vocal performance on stage, the musical accompaniment is almost an unnoticeable side show.  No doubt it provides the melodic and rhythmic momentum that moves the action along, yet the tone and colour of the strings may not stand up to the close scrutiny of a symphonic concert.

Opera Australia’s production of The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best, with all the elements perfectly executed and working seamlessly together to create a sum far greater than the parts through.  This innovative company has an unparalleled ability to bring a refreshing edge to even well-worn masterpieces.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack.com)

Opera Australia’s scintillating production of Carmen February 13, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Opera.
Tags: , , ,

Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre

Sydney, Australia

Tuesday February 8th, 2011

Carmen Georges Bizet

Opera Australia

Guillaume Tourniaire, Conductor

Francesca Zambello, Director

Rinat Shaham, Mezzo-soprano: Carmen

Richard Troxell, Tenor: Don José

Nicole Car, Soprano: Micaëla

Shane Lowrencev, Baritone: Escamillo

Opera Australia Chorus

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

In an opera of such popularity as Carmen by Georges Bizet, it wouldn’t be easy to please an audience likely to be inured to a variety of performances of arias such as Habanera and The Toreador’s Song. Yet Opera Australia made a thoughtfully constructed and well vindicated attempt.

It is well accepted that the role of Carmen has to be quite outstanding for any production of the opera to be successful.  Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham is every inch the sensuous, taunting, manipulative vixen she has to be.  Her voice is tenacious, her tone exudes Latin passion, her phrasing is expressive and her writhing choreography finely chisels her mercurial gypsy character that pervades the entire production.

In sharp contrast to the fickle and vituperative Carmen, the purity of heart and rustic innocence embodied in Micaëla provide a soothing overlay to what is otherwise a harsh and brutal story.  Nicole Car’s portrayal of this piteous antipathy to Carmen in the solo in Act III is easily the moving tear-jerker in the entire performance.

Richard Troxell has a fine tenor voice that does not tear into the high notes with vehemence.  His performance as the somewhat faint-hearted and susceptible Don José is very credible and quite rightly exasperating.

Shane Lowrencev, tall and slim, cuts a dashing figure as Escamillo, the opportunistic and vain torero that eventually captures Carmen’s heart and causes Don José’s downfall.  His voice is less robust than it needs to be, and therefore carries with it less of the virility that the part requires, at times drowned by the unobtrusive orchestral accompaniment.  Yet visually his height effectively towers over the diminutive Don José – quite a clever stroke of casting.

Under the direction of Guillaume Tourniaire, the orchestra puts up a fine performance, in various places accentuating Bizet’s skill as an orchestral composer.  The elegant interplay between flute and harp that opens Act III is refreshing and delightful, providing an apt suggestion of Micaëla’s solo a few moments later.

The costume and set deserve some mention as well.  The simple but solid backdrop provides vital and very flexible support to the changes in mood and ambience of the four acts.  The garish, gold-plated costume of the bull-fighters in the last act, accompanied by a richly decorated cart of flowers, brings the show to a dazzling conclusion.

I suspect that even the most Carmen-weary audience would have been totally satisfied with Opera Australia’s production.

(This review also appears in Backtrack.com)

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

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: , , , ,

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.

Alexander Lazarev slows down with the HK Philharmonic at the Cultural Centre June 6, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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The last time I saw Alexander Lazarev he was somewhat like a prancing hyperactive teenager, and nearly botched Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings at the Festival Hall in London.  In the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on June 3rd, he was a changed man.
Stepping on to the stage slowly behind the soloist of the evening, he was the very epitome of composure and maturity.  Together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal clarinettist Andrew Simon, Lazarev opened the programme with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, K622.
Mozart completed the Clarinet Concerto, said to be his last purely instrumental work, a few months before his death in 1791.  It’s one of several works for the clarinet he wrote for fellow Freemason and master clarinettist Anton Stadler.
My introduction to this work was some 30 years ago, in a recording by Jack Brymer and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.  At the time, Brymer also happened to be the host of a weekly BBC music programme I played on the radio.  When Brymer made this recording in 1964, he was almost 50 years old, probably a tad older than Simon.  I had high expectation, which Simon fulfilled.
Before the orchestra launched into the work, Simon explained that he was going to use the “basset-clarinet”, for which the work was originally composed.  The basset-clarinet has four more semi-tones than the modern clarinet with which we are more familiar, reaching the low C instead of just the E.
Lazarev meticulously coaxed a gentle and subdued tone out of the orchestra in the delicate and somewhat bashful introduction, in a measured tempo Mozart would have approved, maintaining an even rhythmic pace throughout the rest of the first movement.  Simon handled his entry with equal finesse.  The fine interplay between soloist and orchestra was balanced and lively.  Although Simon’s fluency in the rapid scales and arpeggios was less silky than that of Brymer, his tone was fuller with the resonance of his instrument in the lower register.
Simon brought out the best of the wistful lilt in the Adagio – popularised by the movie Out of Africa in the 1980s – a melody you could almost sway to in a reverie.  In the last movement, he was able to maintain the vivacious pace without becoming overly ebullient, with the orchestra always a step behind lending solid support.
The second work in the programme, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, with the title The Year 1905, was no less than a “great leap forward” from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in historical as well as musical terms.  An evocative work that surveys 50 years of suffering by the Russian people in the first half of the 20th Century, the work spans a range of moods, melodies and harmonic structures, sometimes adopting the somber pace of a funeral march, and sometimes the heady pace of blood-curdling violence born of desperation.
As a first generation “baby boomer”, born just after World War II, Lazarev would not have suffered cultural persecution under Stalin.  Nevertheless, as an ethnic Russian, he would no doubt have empathised with Russian composers from that era in their pain.  He clearly succeeded in transferring this empathy to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which effectively captured the contrasting moods and raw emotional power of the four consecutive movements of the Symphony, culminating in a deafening combination of percussion and clanging bell in the final movement, entitled The Tocsin.
At the end of the concert, a small gesture by Lazarev showed that he understood the essence of leadership.  As the audience raved in rapturous applause after the concert, he re-entered and stood at the side of the stage rather than the centre to acknowledge the contribution of the orchestra.
Under Edo de Waart as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor in the past few years, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has honed a mature and subtle tone of world-class quality.  It’s said to be one of the finest orchestras in Asia.  Its handling of the diversity of the two works on June 3rd demonstrated its coming of age.