Haochen Zhang recital

Date: December 12, 2015
Location: Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Janáček – From the Street
Schumann – Kreisleriana Op. 16
Beethoven – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, Les adieux
Scriabin – Poèmes, Op. 69 No. 1 & 2, 32 No. 1
Ginastera – Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22

ENCORES

Mozart – Rondo alla turca (arr. Volodos)
Brahms – Intermezzo No. 2 in A major

Haochen Zhang (piano)

One would assume that Haochen Zhang, who studied under Gary Graffman at Curtis, would perform with the sort of exuberant showmanship and unrestrained virtuosity that often define the performing style of Graffman’s other two star pupils from China, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. That would have been fine, to be sure, as plenty of people are willing and happy to buy tickets to witness the perfect execution of that performing style. In this winter evening at HKU, Zhang offered a similar stomping execution, and then some. There were moments when Zhang flashed with more superficial thrills than musical sensibility, and there were other moments when tempo was modified more for frivolous excitement than for phrasal cohesion. For the better part of the evening, however, Zhang seemed singularly focused on slowly and tastefully unveiling each composer’s music, with audible evidence where he deferred to each composer’s dynamic and tempo signatures, especially in Kreisleriana and Les adieux. With Kreisleriana, Zhang collated various passages, each depicting a varying personality of Schumann’s subject matter (that would be Hoffmann’s Kreisler), with a kaleidoscopic alteration of texture. In Les adieux, Zhang provided a compelling contrast between the lyrical Abwesenheit and the more sonorous Das Wiedersehen. Whereas Lang and Wang often seem to treat the piano as an interpretive intermediary, Zhang’s approach to the keyboard this evening seemed more symbiotic, as if there is equal significance, and substance, between a willing pianist and a willing instrument. Here, the Steinway & Sons concert grand produced a gorgeous sound, with crisp tones at the upper registers and a steely support at the lower registers. Curiously, the middle sections got muffled up, especially on pedals in the Janáček. One would assume that to be an odd characteristic of the instrument. On more attentive listening, this peculiarity could (possibly?) be explained by Zhang’s tendency to overlap his transiting chords under pedal, which created a momentary whiff of cloudiness which then led to a muffling sensation. This overlap would create an incredible audible effect in dreamy music, but the non-linearity could irritate some. Elsewhere, the Beethoven could have sounded less like Rachmaninoff and more like, let’s say, Beethoven, but overall, Zhang’s meticulous and analytical effort paid off with a desirably practical amount of sincerity and authenticity. In the Ginastera, Zhang curtailed some of that analytical rendition and permeated the air with a more relaxed spontaneity. The choices for his three encores: Rondo alla turca a la Volodos, Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 in A major and a short Mozart sonata segment revealed not nearly as much technical notoriety as a strategy and desire to earn a reputation as a pianist with, more than just showmanship and virtuosity, a varied and versatile repertoire.

Advertisements

Fidelio

Date: June 25, 2015
Location: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

Jaquino: Nicholas Phan
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Leonore: Nina Stemme
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

concert performance

Beethoven’s only opera is not an easy one to conduct: beginning effectively as a singspiel, its orchestration becomes denser and more complicated, eventually finishing off in a lengthy, majestic choral finale. A measured and gradual buildup, spanning the entire performance, could pay off handsomely. The San Francisco Symphony found solid leadership in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led with great patience and control. The septuagenarian conductor put a tight leash on Beethoven’s dynamics and dramatic dynamism until the end, where choral and orchestral wildfires finally spilled all over Davies in their full and unabated glory.

But first, the soloists. If Nina Stemme was not to be as widely acclaimed a Wagnerian specialist as she already is, she would surely be suffixed as the Leonore of our times. Very few sopranos could pull off the tessitura challenge of the role, but Stemme handled it with superb care and the sort of ease that characterizes all top singers in their prime (Stemme is most definitely in her prime right now.) Even without a production set to project onto, her dramatic instincts were genuine and emotionally fulfilling, without an inkling of forced acting. With “Abscheulicher”, she made meanings — of Leonore’s despair, hope, consolation, and steadfast resolution — out of mere words. Brandon Jovanovich, as Florestan, came off at his entrance sounding slightly hoarse and dry, but for obvious reasons that only enhanced, not hindered, his characterization of Beethoven’s imprisoned and impoverished hero. As the night wore on, it seemed clear that Jovanovich’s voice, purely on lyrical terms, was not at its most behaved; but his fearless approach to Florestan’s high notes revealed a committed musician who was willing to risk it all for his audience. In that respect, Jovanovich was Fidelio, and Fidelio was Jovanovich. The tenor would win the hearts of the audience, and the audience showed their love at his curtain call. Not everything portended perfectly: Beethoven’s robust Overture (first version) sounded stale and weighed on the deep lull of San Francisco’s summer. Crisp timpani action was dulled by the occasionally lifeless and mechanical upper strings, while the mostly brilliant horn playing was sometimes negated by a few parched notes.

Beethoven first premiered Fidelio at Theater an der Wien in November 1805, a few months after he debuted (in April of that year) his Third Symphony, in the same hall. The two pieces, written and presented at a time of Napoleon’s dramatic rise, represent a coherent vision of Beethoven’s political ideology: Fidelio exhibits the composer’s great passion for the common man’s liberty and freedom, while Eroica presents a hero who champions democratic and anti-despotic ideals. Both pieces require, in my opinion, a similar structural understanding of this ideological subject matter, the execution of which probably prefers an overarching ensemble control and orchestral narration over bursts of fiery brilliance. Here, Tilson Thomas showcased the sort of steady nobility and unwavering control that remained regrettably unfulfilled in van Zweden’s Eroica a fortnight ago.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony's Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony’s Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

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.

Maria João Pires

Date: February 20 & 21, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano

In two concerts during the Arts Festival, the Hong Kong audience had a chance to hear Lisboeta pianist Maria João Pires play two concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Schumann (Op. 54), and Chopin No. 2 (Op. 21). In the first concert, Pires committed herself with measured eloquence, and showed no signs of impatience in unveiling Schumann’s melodic fabric in a slow but sure fashion. In both opening and final movements, her playing infused an aura of nobility and grandeur in the concert hall, though at times her generous pedal work obscured some fine details, especially in those book-ending movements. In the second concert, Chopin’s tricky fingering did not faze the 69-year-old pianist, who delighted with a sympathetic, almost cerebral insight to the piece. Pires’ articulation, unruffled and full of small details and ideas, would easily earn the composer’s approval. That said, Pires seemed just short of providing a requisite level of emotive fervor and broad dynamic range demanded by the piece, especially in the all-hell-breaks-loose Allegro vivace movement. On balance, Pires remains a world-class pianist despite her age, but the choice of the Chopin was less than desirable. Perhaps the Hong Kong audience would be better served with the sort of Schubert and Brahms chamber works – well featured in Pires’ recent recordings with DG – that are more appropriate at this stage in her career. Also programmed in the two concerts were two symphonies: Schumann No. 2 and Beethoven No. 5. The chamber group as a whole was careful with detailing. The first bassoon could have been less dynamically protruding, especially during the Beethoven, but overall the musicians did fine under Robin Ticciati’s animated conducting. The Glyndebourne director-designate’s arm movements, vivid with broad motions, were exciting and fun to watch. The baroque horns (in the Beethoven) had a few dirty moments, but when the archaic instruments were in control, they gave the sort of regal spaciousness and metallic splendor that regular French horns could not easily reproduce.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (Photo credit: HK Arts Festival website)