Orchestral music

Dresden/Sanderling/Fischer: Dvorak, Brahms etc.

Date: October 23, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Michael Sanderling led the Dresdner players in an evening of romanticism, featuring Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Dvorak’s violin concerto with the young and talented Julia Fischer, and finally Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Julia Fischer’s violin playing was feisty and articulate, though her mannerisms on stage gave the impression that she did not feel particularly affectionate towards or comfortable with the piece. In her encore performance, Paganini’s Caprice No. 15, her fingering was feathery and not labored at all, despite all the technical traps of the piece. More importantly, the sort of delicate care that she placed into her phrasing and dynamics suggested that the work was deeply personal to her.

A Tristan Liebestod without a soprano voice was like eating dry pancakes without syrup; the best that could be said of Dresden’s performance here was that all notes were played and phrasal arches seemed to suggest some sort of dramatic consequence behind the music. But there was hardly any inkling that fate and death had anything to do with their clinical but unfortunately rather lifeless rundown. With Brahms, Michael Sanderling could not bring out the best of the players until the second movement, but by then damage has been done. During the development section of the first movement, strings and winds were supposed to converse in a series of call and response, almost like a gentle quarrel between two young, passionate lovers, but instead what was heard was a bland series of notes that happened in time but offered little else, even in the context of Brahms’ pure music. The horns’ second movement entry was timid and unfocused. The lower brasses, which were given plenty of attention by the composer in the fourth movement, were frequently hesitant – a fatal flaw in a movement where Brahms obviously played tribute to the structural clarity of classicism. But all was not lost. Brahms made a commitment, particularly in this last symphonic work of his, to highlight woodwinds not merely as a crucial harmonic support but as a defining one, even if often buried in the rest of the orchestral harmonics. The woodwind players duly complied and, in my life of hearing Brahms, I have not heard an oboist as devoted and as lyrical as the lovely Undine Röhner-Stolle, Dresden’s principal. Her playing beamed with lyrical beauty, like small lilac pedals floating mid-air in autumn breezes. Her phrasal entrances were clean and committed; her phrasing was sublime and heart-warmingly poetic.

I could not remember the last time when I was compelled, after a performance, to google to find out more about an orchestra member. Röhner-Stolle’s commitment seemed contagious too: players around her found themselves unchained and seemingly having a time of their life. As audience, we live for and cherish those moments.

Dresden in Hong Kong.

Dresden in Hong Kong.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 1: Dvořák 8, 9

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.

LPO with Eschenbach at the NCPA.

LPO with Eschenbach.

LPO with Eschenbach

The Egg is covered with snow.

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.