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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)



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)