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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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012

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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.