Date: January 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.
Antonín Dvořák wrote his Ninth symphony while visiting America, in the late 19th century. He was quoted as saying, in writing the piece, he drew much inspiration from and often alluded to the colors and textures of Native American music. Even though modern scholars have since analytically concluded – rightly or wrongly – that those textures are more attributable to Dvorak’s native land of Bohemia than to the American Midwest, a heavy handed usage of themes that evoke rolling landscapes and pastures, wherever they may be, is unmistakable.
This evening, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach highlights those themes with long, sweeping phrases, as if he were directing slow-moving herds in an Albert Bierstadt landscape of rolling hills and gentle mist. In the Largo movement, Eschenbach leads at a contemplative, measured pace, and yields plenty of maneuvering room for the much-beloved English horn solo. It is in this movement that the audience is transported into a pastoral where sandalwood-infused smoke from cottage chimneys dances into a lethargic evening. This pastoral silence is impregnated by scattered applauses soon after the final note in the second movement: that, though normally considered to be a serious faux pas in the parlance of proper concert hall manners, is not entirely inconsistent with the piece’s history: at the world premiere of the Ninth, each movement was greeted with such rapturous applause that Dvorak had to turn and take a bow. Moving on, the third movement is by comparison a little prosaic, but provides the necessary springboard to the empowering fourth movement, which is marked with such spiritual force that I wonder if the ceiling of the hall would finally crack open to give way to plenty of celestial radiance.
Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and the Eighth fill out the rest (or first-half) of the evening’s program. Eschenbach, together with the London Phil, delivers a Carnival Overture that is lively and feisty, while their Eighth, especially the first movement, is idyllic and cheery. The sequence of birdcalls and woodland voices knits nicely into yet another bucolic imagery. The strong brass section in the fourth movement brings much warmth to an audience who has to cut through an unrelenting, -15 degrees Celsius weather to get to the Egg – in one of Beijing’s coldest winters on record – to kick off the NCPA’s 2010 spring season with style and class.
Footnote: Given the prohibitive weather, I give much credit to a well-behaved audience who definitely managed to control their coughs and sneezes well – perhaps in huge deference to the maestro and the incredible musicians of LPO. The only major blemish of the evening, notwithstanding the applause between the second and the third movements in the Ninth, occurred when some idiot decided it was high time to picnic – and for nearly 8 seconds he was trying to open what seemed like a bag of potato chips…during the second movement of the Ninth…during the English horn solo! And that idiot, sitting in the first row of the left dress circle, had the balls to do just that, not merely in front of a capacity audience but in front of Wu Yi, a former Vice Premier and an avid classical music fan, who was sitting in the first parterre row, just a few seats in front of mine and about 10 meters away from that idiot. I swear Wu heard the ruffling of the bag and reacted with a slight body movement. For a second or two, I drifted away from Dvorak’s dreamscape, and imagined how wicked cool it would be if heaven actually opened in the fourth movement, sending down a bunch of manner police to teach that idiot when not to ruffle open a bag of chips.