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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.

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.