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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.


Hong Kong Philharmonic in works by Strauss and Zemlinsky March 1, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Sunday 27th February, 2011


R Strauss Serenade in E flat, Op. 7

R Strauss Metamorphosen

Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, Op. 18


Edo de Waart, Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, chose for his contribution to the 2011 Arts Festival works by two Germanic composers spanning the late Romantic and early modern periods who were almost exact contemporaries.  Richard Strauss coincidentally was born seven years before and died seven years after Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Although drawn from similar musical traditions, the works by the two composers differ in form and style.  To begin with, those by Strauss are scored for a homogeneous section of the orchestra, while the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony is scored for full orchestra and voices.

The two works by Strauss more or less bookend his long career.  He wrote the Serenade for 13 wind instruments in E flat major when he was in his teens, and it is said to be the first of his works to have survived in the concert hall.  The other, Metamorphosen, he finished in the final months of the Second World War, a few years before he died in 1949, and probably the last major work in his career except the Last Four Songs.

The Serenade for 13 wind instruments in E flat major is a dainty composition full of youthful energy and gentle enthusiasm.  It opens with a bashful tune on oboes, blossoming like flowers in spring into the full wind ensemble.  At times de Waart seems to have difficulty controlling the mischievous wind players, who all want to go in different directions.  Flashes of anxiety do appear, but are quickly overcome by the horns which provide a reassuring anchor.

In sharp contrast, Metamorphosen, scored for 23 solo strings, opens with a melancholic, gently weeping theme on cellos and double basses, repeated on violins and violas, that grows into sombre wailing.  De Waart extracts a smooth, mellow, controlled and refined tone from the players, perhaps not tragic enough, but nevertheless emotionally charged.  The sombre wailing gives way to anguished outpouring, culminating in the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony.  The work finishes by returning to the restrained melancholy with which it begins, as if Strauss was signalling his resignation from a long career.

I find it irresistible to draw parallels between Zemlinsky and Antonio Salieri.  Both were tutors to famous composers – Salieri to Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt, and Zemlinsky to Arnold Schoenberg; and we might remember them better if more talented contemporaries who lived much shorter lives had not overshadowed them – Mozart for Salieri, and Mahler for Zemlinsky.

In fact, Zemlinsky might have been more respected in his time than Salieri, with Brahms recommending one of his works for publication, and Mahler conducting the premiere of his opera Es War einmal. In Why Mahler, Norman Lebrecht tells the story about Mahler’s encounter with Eric Korngold, who wanted to be a composer.  Mahler is said to have told Korngold’s father: “take him to Zemlinsky…he will learn all he needs.”

Comparison of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is fully justifiable, as the composer himself did so in a letter to his publisher.  They both draw from Eastern sources – Das Lied from Chinese poems and the Lyric Symphony from the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European Nobel Laureate for literature; and both are scored for solo voices and orchestra.

Divided into seven movements, the Lyric Symphony opens with a forceful and passionate but pithy theme that quiets down into the first song, sung by baritone Stephan Genz, standing in for Konrad Jont, who withdraws at the last minute owing to illness.  Although for very brief moments he struggles to overcome the powerful orchestral accompaniment, his voice is versatile and he tackles his part with gusto.  He is somewhat faltering in the first song, but quickly regains self-confidence.  Swedish soprano Marlin Hartelius has a fine but not overly rich voice, which has a tinge of darkness about it.  She excels in the second movement, a scherzo to which she applies the litheness of her voice to highlight the numbing distraction of desire.

At its worst, the symphony is like thick snow in the winter – you sink into it and won’t get hurt, but soon feel the cold and find it hard to extricate yourself.  The orchestration in parts of the work is described as “dense” in the programme notes, to the point of being onerous, I would add.  Nevertheless, the orchestra under Edo de Waart tries its best.  In the bright spots of elegance and lyricism, as in the opening of the fourth and final movements, it excels by being nimble and light.

Zemlinsky is no Mahler, whose breadth of vision, stamina and depth of emotion are hard to emulate.  His Lyric Symphony nevertheless has enough sparks of excellence to merit a detour from the standard classical and romantic repertoire.  Kudos goes to Edo de Waart for thoughtful programming, and pulling it off with aplomb.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack.com)