Ethereal is the Moon

Date: March 12, 2017
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Chan Hing-yan – Ethereal is the Moon
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Wang Ying-chieh (huqin)
Colleen Lee (piano)
Yip Wing-sie (conductor)

Premiered during Sinfonietta’s tour in Taiwan back in November 2016, “Ethereal is the Moon” is the sixth of composer Chan Hing-yan’s commissions for the orchestra. The composition was originally conceived to celebrate the 20th anniversary of collaboration between the composer and the orchestra (their first collaboration, “Enigmas of the Moon”, was premiered in 1998). After Chan completed “Ethereal” in September 2016, two years earlier than planned, the piece was swiftly picked for the orchestra’s tour.

The piece is cast in five movements, each elaborating on one line of Chan’s five-lined, eponymous poem:

Scrawny Horse’s Hooves on Waning Crescent
Moon-embalmed, a Dead Flower Lies in State —
Full Moon Leans to Outline Raven Shadows
Frost-bruised Blossoms Hide the Moonbeam’s Chill —
Lunar Halo Mourns the Mountain Demons

In the music, the first, third and fifth assert with dominant themes. The second and fourth, offering light orchestration and mellow musical structures, not only act as connecting interludes but mirror the motionless sensibility of the poem’s second and fourth lines. This alternating structure further reminds us of the Shostakovich, also structured in five movements, with two mellow movements on either side of the scintillating third. The third movement of “Ethereal” includes a rapid-firing huqin motif that repeats throughout the movement. Played here by Wang Ying-chieh, the motif reminds us of the foundation motif in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. In terms of construct, “Ethereal” is comparable to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. In terms of tonal color, solemn themes and overall melancholic mood, however, the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 11 seems more related.

The opening first movement of “Ethereal” is funereal, almost to the point of apocalypse. Here, Wang’s huqin was juxtaposed frequently in semi-tonal digression by the first violins. The effect was hauntingly surreal. A suffocating air of bleakness seemed to creep in slowly, turning the evening into one of near lifelessness. The second and fourth movements offer no particularly discerning theme, but the harmonic structure is completed with intricate layers of long holding notes by lower strings and lower brasses — a treatment that may well be a tribute to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Whether Shostakovich’s music has actually influenced “Ethereal” is a question yet to be explored, but “Ethereal” very well holds its own in terms of contrasts, details, and its expressiveness. The huqin line offered by Wang is both poetic and vivaciously detailed, and reveals Chan’s committed effort to showcase the instrument’s versatility as a purveyor, respectively, of melody and of texture.

The showcase of versatility was unfortunately not continued in Colleen Lee’s performance in Ravel. Lee’s piano playing was precise and clinical, but was powerless as a voice or as a dramatic device. The piece’s famously jazzy lines were rendered with a Bach-like rigidity. Even a hint of Mozartean playfulness could have offered a more forceful impact. In moments where horns and woodwinds soared with blood-boiling, high-wired dramatics, the piano line failed to answer with a properly balanced counterpoint. That was not to suggest that Lee, who is a past Chopin prize winner, limped to a finish; it was simply that, even as Lee breezed through the Ravel without any difficulty, there was very little emotional or dramatic dialogue between the orchestra and the concerto instrument.

After intermission, we were brought back to “Ethereal”’s structural twin but emotional nemesis. The sole purpose of Shostakovich’s comedic piece could be, jokingly, referred to as a dramatically futile mad dash from the start to the finish. If “Ethereal” is sincere and serious, this Shostakovich is probably anything but. Curiously, Yip offered a cerebral account of the first two movements, as if appearing to stall, or at least slow down, the inevitable dash to the end. The upper violins offered lush phrasings that veered towards Brahmsian sentimentality. Slowly but surely, Yip began to build momentum in the third, but may have overshot her pace so much so that the first bassoon, which holds perhaps the key to the entire work, was barely catching up with the rapid fingering. In the end, the orchestral coloring could be said to be more heroic than comedic, more romantic than satirical. The output would have pleased Stalin, but probably not, at least not necessarily, the composer himself.

Ethereal is the Moon: a program presented under Hong Kong Arts Festival. Photo credit: Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

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HK Phil/Behzod Abduraimov

Date: July 1, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3
Elgar – Symphony No. 1

ENCORE (after Prokofiev)

Bach/Vivaldi – “Siciliano” from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Closing Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 2015/16 season was a pair of concerts featuring Uzbek sensation Behzod Abduraimov on the piano. The programming was not as curious as it was stale: just over a year ago, a similar concert featured a big Elgar piece (Engima Variations), a finger-breaking piano concerto (Rach 3), and the wizardry of Abduraimov. Surely, Abduraimov is always eagerly anticipated, while the music of Elgar deserves to be heard. But what purpose does setting up similar programs serve? The program notes surely could, and should have offered an explanation, lest the programmers be accused of simply being lazy for repeating what worked before?

That being said, the concert did not fail to impress. In his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev scores something that frenetically switches between the lyrical and the grotesque. This evening, Abduraimov juggled a well-balanced act by deftly altering between primal lyricism and blinding hysteria, all the while keeping an absurd level of energy. Some of his peers might pound out Prokofiev’s chords in nihilistic brutality, but Abduraimov’s approach to the keyboard was better thought out, with a combination of cultured sophistication and civility. The young pianist beamed with fiery and authoritative confidence, and did not for a moment sounded muddled or indecisive. This concerto requires an equal partner in the orchestra and the soloist, and Abduraimov was clearly attentive to his partner’s sonic motions here. He leaned forward a la Glenn Gould, but would often look up to synthesize with Ashkenazy’s conducting, which gave plenty of leeway to the pianist and the various orchestral soloists to shine through. The performance probably could have benefited from a slight pick-up in pace, as there were a few instances when the orchestra (especially the brass section) was moving too far behind Abduraimov. With “Sicilienne”, Abduraimov found the perfect coupling to calm down a delirious audience eager for some more. His pace was well-measured; his touch was airy; and his phrasing was smooth as floaty silk. His phrasing of the baroque material could bother a few with a slight romantic inclination, but otherwise no fault could reasonably be found in this incredibly well-executed encore. Here, he showed great potential in a much wider repertoire, away from oft-heard, finger-breaking piano concertos.

Elgar’s First is probably the most definitive British symphony, if only because Elgar unabashedly advocated its “Britishness”. That being said, it is well documented that Elgar might have borrowed from, or influenced by, the music of Wagner and Brahms. The construction of some lower strings points to Wälsung music in Die Walküre, while various woodwind harmony reminds one of Siegfried. Here, Ashkenazy seemed ready to peel away the gargantuan piece in piece-meal bits, slowly revealing and highlighting each and every important solos. This Elgar never sounded so much like a multi-instrument concerto, each with equal prominence over the course of the symphony. Ashkenazy’s pace was thoughtful and didactic, though a brisker pace would have been preferred. Overall, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded quite fine, if more Germanic than British, and was clearly more attentive and lively with Elgar than with Prokofiev.

St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

HK Sinfonietta/Penderecki

Date: October 24, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Penderecki – Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor)
James Cuddeford (violin)

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, heretofore playing second fiddle to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the city’s better funded and higher profile cousin, should be congratulating its management and musicians for programming the ambitious and hard-to-please program featuring Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. Both pieces are twentieth century gems, basking in glorious critical reviews but lingering in the dark corners of the general public’s memory and imagination. One reason is that both pieces bordered, though did not entirely infringe upon, the atonal. Another reason is that both pieces do not offer so much of a reputable melody as a seemingly deliberate encryption thereof – purists may even find snippets of Shostakovich’s melodic tributes as sophomoric violations of plagiarism, and conclude the music to be an unconvincing original piece of art.

But controversy, coupled with newness in musical composition, is precisely the catalytic ingredients to an adventurous evening. Contrast that with the HK Phil’s conservatism (see here, here and here), there is much to be savored in tonight’s program. It helps that the concerto was led by the composer himself, and anchored by James Cuddeford, Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s concertmaster. Visually, Penderecki seemed to be a patient, unassertive type of maestro, who was ready to let the musicians present themselves in their most authentic way. Hong Kong Sinfonietta has not over the years developed a clear and trademarked style, but in front of Penderecki they seemed extremely alert and sensitive, especially to accents and notations. Winds sounded attentive, while strings charged with cohesive intelligence. James Cuddeford’s effort was nothing less than a musical and visual spectacle. His bowing was fluid and faultless, and his stopping and plucking supreme. Penderecki’s piece yearns for the interpreter’s interpretation, of which Cuddeford offered plenty here. Notations became Cuddeford’s train of thoughts, unleashed into the auditorium with a soulful being that loomed with gravity and presence. Cuddeford’s body swerved with Penderecki’s hauntingly beautiful melody, while melodic mood changes seemed readily reflected on the violinist’s well-chiseled, front cover-worthy face. Bowing and fingering could appear fragile and incomplete, but sounded crisp and solvent. As Cuddeford weaved through some of the quietest solo passages in Penderecki’s mystic work, his violin worked in ways that were serenely ephemeral but cryptic – as if he was spraying intergalactic dust onto the most silent, uninhabited space in universe’s most infinite expanse of nothingness. The capacity crowd at City Hall held their breath in suspense throughout much of the piece, fully realizing that the moment could quite possibly be the orchestra’s finest on record.

Less can be said of the Shostakovich which came after intermission, though the musicians were not to blame. If anything, the incredible performance of the Penderecki seemed to boost the musicians’ confidence. The beginning Allegretto was meticulously presented by the woodwinds and gallantly supported by the strings section, which was buffed up from the concerto’s leaner configuration. Trouble began in Adagio – Largo, when children’s noises started to creep into the auditorium. The noises seemed to arrive from behind the doors of the balcony section (which was closed for this particular concert), and did not subside for the rest of the movement. The treacherous brass phrases in pianissimo were completely breached by this profanity, and flushed into the toilet together with the musicians’ collective focus. Brass started to sound incoherent; strings sounded frigidly cautious, and percussion was barely able to hold onto Shostakovich’s intense rhythmic integrity. The third movement – a tribute to Wagner’s various operas – could not be more disastrous as the most intimate passages, including those somber passages featuring Siegfried’s death, were completely trespassed by the undiminished noises from outside the auditorium. This noise finally subsided in the final movement, but left a foul taste in the listeners’ collective memory. Penderecki would not have been pleased with this situation. If anything could be scavenged from this upheaval, as well as the collective destruction of musicians’ focus and the music, it would be a fitting memorial to a composition that paralleled, if not also reflected, the composer’s failing health and imminent death.

As the concert drew to a close, the orchestra was greeted with rounds of thunderous applause and waves of ovations – perhaps as a compliment to its ability to hold together despite the intrusion, for which the management of City Hall should be held entirely responsible. While the mishap dented the stupendous effort of the first half of the evening, there is no question that, by pulling off a risky programming, the management and programmers of the orchestra could now hold its head high, even with the city’s other orchestra in mind.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

HK Phil/Yuja Wang

Date: June 13, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9
Beethoven – Symphony No. 3

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

Yuja Wang, who has cultivated an image of a fiery pianist conquering with ease every finger-breaking Russian piece available to mankind, is not known to be an interpreter of Mozart. On this occasion, she showed why she was not: her playing was somewhat distanced from the composition, and her reliance on the printed score in front of her, no matter how infrequently she referred to it, seemed to hinder her interpretation of the music. Conductor Jaap van Zweden indulged her further with the luxury of the occasional ritardando that could irritate Mozartean purists. Climactic passages came off sounding too contemporary and edgy for Mozart’s time. The ebb and flow of Mozart’s cadences reminded us more of Schubert’s wandering journey to death, or of the hypnotic flow of Brahms’ love poetry, than of the mature, steady classicism that a mid-career Mozart was supposed to offer. That said, Alfred Einstein would have agreed that this particular Mozart, with its impetuous and glorious tendencies, was far ahead of its time. Perhaps that was what Wang was going after here, but the end product, if not also the manner in which the output was produced, was rather unconvincing. Wang’s two encores – Horowitz’s Carmen variations and her variation of Rondo alla turca – were memorable in the sense that she was unabashedly relentless in showing off her fingering skills and not much else. When tempo seemed bottlenecked by impossible fingering, her finger would flash faster, with even more fiery brilliance. Between plenty of flashy displays of technique and speed, there was very little musicality to speak of. After intermission was Beethoven Third, the piece that Einstein found etymologically comparable to Mozart’s concerto. The orchestra’s intonation this evening was accurate and focused, and the musicians seemed to genuinely enjoy making music together. The brass section could sound a little too brash, or the strings a little too golden (perhaps too much Wagner recently?), but the output’s overall focus and balance must be commended with no reservation, especially as compared with the Philharmonic merely a few years ago. That said, van Zweden’s approach to Eroica failed to live up to heightened expectations. Narrative power is required of the piece which is essentially a totemic embodiment of Beethoven’s idealistic hero. Van Zweden’s execution this evening seemed to favor transient dramatic brilliance over narrative dramaturgy. The result was an Eroica beaming with occasional brilliance but lacking an interpretative voice, in much the same way that Wang’s concerto performance occurred with sparks but without having much to say.

LA Phil/Dudamel

Date: March 19, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mahler – Symphony No. 6

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

The young Mahler was known to be a flamboyant, restless man on the rostrum, with exaggerated body swings and a temperament that could infuriate a few. The more mature Mahler as seen this evening mellowed down considerably, with condense and more economical movements. Dudamel’s development seems to follow a similar path: if the rostrum antics of the young Dudamel was once considered too hysterical and riotous, a more mature Dudamel today seems ready to tame himself and be more introspective regarding interpretation.

Aside from the delirium also known as Dudamel’s hairdo, the Venezuelan conductor was spotted this evening with smaller, less aggressive though no less sharp movements. His body, used to swing wildly and violently in an unreviewed Mahler 1 concert more than five years ago, seemed more at ease and at peace with the music. The subtler movement did not necessarily mean his leadership less interpretative: that only seemed to suggest that Dudamel did not feel necessary to use an amplified body language to get his message across, whether to his orchestra or to the audience studying his every move. Dudamel’s Mahler 6 could be combative and violent (Allegro), introspective (Andante), vibrant and lively (Scherzo), and dark and nerve-wrecking (Finale). The hammer blows, executed by a percussionist climbing a flight of stairs to the top of a box the size of a minivan and slashing a hammer onto it, felt brutal and nihilistic. The imagery of a man in polished tails, hammering away at a gigantic wood box in a concert hall was both a visual and a spiritual revelation. Specifically, music could not be dismissed as merely sonic, as if watching an orchestra performing live, within a stone’s throw away, ever was. By the same token, however, a more mature Dudamel should not be seen as lacking vitality — the visual merely became more discriminating, and each movement more profound. The Los Angeles brass painted an acidic, metallic hue, quite American (in the Philadelphia or Cleveland sense) and not quite the same as the warm, golden-hued sound we heard from Staatskapelle Dresden a fortnight ago. The strings were in decent form all night, with a good balance and a clinical execution — perhaps a direct consequence of two decades of Salonen’s institution-transforming directorship. The musicians were like marathon athletes too — able to throw out climax after climax of musical delights throughout the evening, without an inkling of fatigue. The evening’s only major regret was that the Allegro recapitulations were done somewhat as mechanized repeats without much of a change of ideas or even a hint of a desire to change.

The concert occurred just as it was announced across the Pacific that the maestro and his wife of nine years, Eloisa Maturen, were about to divorce each other. Whether the announcement, and surely the personal struggle behind it, could have influenced Dudamel’s conducting and the concert this evening was anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, the maturation of Dudamel, as well as the fine form of the Angelenos, ultimately underwrote a pleasant evening.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.

 

Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann

Date: February 27 and 28, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27
Strauss – Metamorphosen, Study for 23 Solo Strings
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor

February 28
Liszt – Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Christian Thielemann must be having a ball of his life. As Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle, he also presides over its annual residence at the glittery Salzburg Easter Festival, as well as the annual season of Staatsoper Dresden, the house of Strauss. Perhaps no other job in this universe offers such panoply of orchestral, festival and operatic opportunities, not to mention Thielemann’s relative, and well documented, free reign at the position. With the control of his empire in Dresden secure, it is perhaps not surprising to see him not eagerly (at least not overtly) seeking Berlin’s vacancy, perhaps the most venerable (even if inevitably overrated) conducting job in all of classical music. What Thielemann has offered in two evenings of concerts in Hong Kong shows his deep commitment to continental music and Dresden’s famously golden-hued sound, but leaves the audience wondering if Der Kaiser has the temperament and passion for a wider, more versatile repertoire.

With Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden came out sounding exactly as expected: warm strings, rounded brass, crisp woodwinds. The brass crescendo in the opening bars consumed the space with saintly dignity. At the first drawn out D en tutti, one could feel the walls of the concert hall shaking and the lights fickly dangling onto the ceiling above. But alas, at the slower passages, especially at the first Langsamer passage, the balance of the strings ran amok, with the supportive but delicate phrases of the second violins engulfed completely by the melodic lines of the first violins and the eager resonance of the basses. The legato horn passages, supposedly intended to introduce a nobler composure on top of the strings, did just the opposite: sounding nervous in tone and languid in tune, they instead drew attention and unwanted annoyance away from Bruckner’s melodic commitment. The Scherzo was more interesting, with the playful strings creating a suspenseful opening, echoed resolutely by the brass and percussion in the reply section. Excellent woodwind solos lightened up the spirit, but by the mid-point of the Adagio, there was this feeling that the orchestra was tired and no longer fully committed to the proceedings. Orchestral balance on the whole was adequate but lacked conversational power, solos were precise but offered very little individual expressiveness. Ensemble seemed well coordinated but sounded rather mechanical. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the concert, but herein lies the problem: with so much going on in Bruckner’s score, Thielemann seemed content to unfold the entirety of it without having anything interesting to say.

Ein Heldenleben, Richard Strauss’ 1898 tone poem, came off a lot better, with sharp commitment and ascending energy levels just as the hero’s life is unveiled. In the big forte sections, it was easy to forget about tonal quality and rhythmic precision, but the Dresden musicians here were attentive and alert. The solo violin, depicting the hero’s lady, turned its short passages into sweet depictions of tenderly and flirtatious love. The gigantic brass passages reminded us of Beethoven’s most glorious, which was exactly what Strauss intended to mimic here. As the hero’s life comes to an end and the music slows down, a metaphorical ring of the glorious yesteryear could still be heard in the audience’s collective psyche. Barely a few minutes into the Strauss, details and textures abound, and one could sense a brilliant ensemble at work and a genius at the helm. Dynamics over the entire piece found eruptive pleasures, while the dying passages found solemn dignity. The subject matter was heroic, but it was unmistakable that the evening was the work of an ensemble of skilled human beings. In two evenings of concerts, two orchestras wrestled for the audience’s love, and it was clear which orchestra won.

Despite the lethargic lapses in the Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden gave a fairly representative showcase of its trademarked continental sound. The fiery and festive Ein Heldenleben was only bested momentarily by an encore of Lohengrin’s Act III prelude, which was definitive. Thielemann, with modest but effective movements, was an understated, subtle conductor. But such subtlety, together with Thielemann’s somewhat wooden visage, can be misconstrued as a lack of passion for and connection to the score. Also, with a world-class outfit such as Staatskapelle Dresden, it would be convenient for one to believe that, even if untrue, the ensemble conducts itself. Germans may fall left and right to have another German to lead the Berliners, but if Thielemann ever wanted the position, he needs to offer more.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.