Orchestral music

Phil Orch/Dutoit/Steinbacher: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky etc.

Date: May 4 and 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is no stranger to the Beijing audience. It was the first American orchestra to visit modern China, in 1973, with Eugene Ormandy. The last visit was two years ago, with Christoph Eschenbach. It is now back in the Chinese capital again, only this time without a permanent music director. Charles Dutoit, currently “Chief Conductor” with the Orchestra, is considered temporary and, despite his popularity and good relationships with the players, does not hold the Orchestra’s coveted directorship.

This temporary appointment has not deterred Dutoit from attempting the works most associated with the Philadelphia Sound: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in the first evening, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring in the second.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was the composer’s last composition, and was widely considered to be a summary of his late style, which emphasized the tonal color and character of individual instruments. Dutoit’s rendition was precise and cohesive, and he seemed thoroughly in control despite the piece’s intricate dynamisms and complexities. The Symphonic Dances, dedicated to and premiered by the Orchestra and Ormandy, is considered to be a top-line item in Philadelphia’s repertoire, and here in Beijing this golden age sound was once again lit up and alive.

Also in the first evening’s programme was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, soloed by Arabella Steinbacher. Steinbacher’s top notes were fiery but insecure at times, and her pitch was in some instances warped, especially in the top range. Her Tchaikovsky was measured, but sometimes felt unnecessarily dragged on. Any violinist playing the piece would look forward to the climactic locomotion of the third movement, but Steinbacher seemed to have lost focus here and there, and sounded as if her agile prowess was the only thing that remained in a soulless figure lacking any emotive sentimentality. Horns in the second movement sounded unnecessarily loud, with its dynamics often overwhelming the exquisite solo lines. While a great majority of the audience gasped and cheered at the end of the piece, I couldn’t help but notice that a few souls left the hall for intermission feeling somewhat less than fully satisfied.

Steinbacher, born to a German father and a Japanese mother, is a beautiful woman, with the kind of mystic, Eurasian facial features and gorgeous, ballerina-like figure that most certainly turn heads wherever she goes. Yet, that beauty was thoroughly betrayed by the alarmingly distracting gown that wrapped around her body. It had these coffee-brown feathers that, when sewn together, looked as if Big Bird jumped into a puddle of mud. And when her body moved with the music, I couldn’t get Big Bird and its fluttering wings off my mind.

The all-Stravinsky evening the next day was quite a rare treat. The Firebird was lively and feisty, with the clear agenda of initially masquerading but slowly unveiling the full glory of Stravinsky’s orchestration. The Rite of Spring moved with a spirited, almost playfully prankish pace, for a good reason: it is one of the Orchestra’s signature pieces, and the one piece that not only was first recorded in the US by Philadelphia with Stokowski, but also became commercially popular after being prominently featured in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, whose orchestral music was, of course, played by the Orchestra.

The crisp virtuosity on display by Dutoit and the Orchestra transported the audience back to this gilded golden age that today’s audience could only sample via recordings. The first evening’s encore, a section from Ravel’s Daphnis, was filled with the sort of tender romanticism that evoked Muti and late-career Ormandy. The presence of octogenarian percussionist — the legendary Alan Abel — was not even formally credited by the printed programme but, at least to me, the most special. It was therefore regrettable that neither of the concerts was sold out, with plenty of seats available in nearly every section of the hall.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 2: Folklores, tales

Date: January 6, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

If Day 1 focused on a natural world with hints of the supernatural, then Day 2 gravitates towards the telling of stories and the interpretation of ideas. The LPO/Eschenbach lovefest continues at the NCPA, with Eschenbach conducting a night of program music: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, Stravinsky’s (1919) Firebird Suite, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

In Romeo and Juliet, Eschenbach brings the image of Shakespeare’s feud of the Montagues and Capulets to the NCPA’s concert hall by unleashing undulating strings and roaring brass – the composer’s tools for describing not only the fervent emotions of the two young lovers but the turbulence of the two families. In the coda, the timpani leads the funeral march with haunting authority, and ends the piece with a heart-aching drum roll that seemingly crystallizes the inevitability…of death.

While I am captivated by R&J, my reaction to the Firebird is less enthusiastic. Eschenbach’s problem begins right from the beginning, when the all-important double bass intro sounds muffled and lackluster. The more I listen, the more it sounds like music about a procrastinating duck in a wet summer afternoon than a majestic firebird in a heroic fantasy. Stravinsky’s orchestral brilliance seems suppressed until perhaps the Lullaby, but by then I am lost. The audience remains generous, rewarding Eschenbach with two calls to the podium before intermission.

After the intermission, Eschenbach continues with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, when the Maestro looses his baton in favor of bare hands. The third piece, Little Ugly Girl, captivates the audience with a mischievous melody in a familiar pentatonic scale as well as tamtam splashes that add plenty of velvety richness. But the highlight belongs to an astoundingly beautiful Schiedmayer celesta, whose soft, exquisite timbre adds a foliated sweetness to the motherly warmth of the nourishing strings section.

Anchoring two days of spectacular performance is Francesca da Rimini, where Eschenbach and the musicians seem most musically determined and alert. The moral tragedy of Francesca, immortalized in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, is ushered in through the mastery of Eschenbach’s intense direction. Francesca, who was caught flinging with her husband’s brother, is condemned to death together with the brother. The music becomes a canvas for their damnation, in an intense series of music themes that oscillate between retelling joyous embraces of the past and foretelling the inexorable road to perdition. Here, Eschenbach deftly showcases this unique paradigm of romantic music with a boisterous fanfare in one minute, followed by subdued contemplation in the next. Immaculate cymbal work captures the fragmenting reality of yet another pair of doom-bound lovers, and marks the end of two days of excellent music making.

A poster at the NCPA, with Eschenbach getting light-sabered.

Footnote: This is Eschenbach at his best. In my opinion, the Maestro is my favorite interpreter – still alive today – of the late romantic period/impressionist/early 20th century music, next to or even on par with my much beloved but ailing Maestro Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s Francesca is the case in point: the intense ferocity and mellow grace embellishing the embrace and separation of the doomed lovers are tightly interwoven into one coherent fabric of vivid romanticism. I hope Eschenbach will return to Beijing soon.

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.