Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky

Date: August 26, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Schoenberg – Violin Concerto Op. 35
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)


Schoenberg’s violin concerto is as much a violin concerto as a concerto for violin and orchestra. Wind solos often dominate, intermittently receiving from, and passing on the melodic line to, the solo violin. Percussive instruments also often rise to the fore, with long, prominent lines of melodic and rhythmic significance intertwined with the solo violin. The fabric of the sound palette is thus all the more scrumptious and exquisite, when the solo violin is paired with a capable orchestra. Such was very much the case here. Whether it was Mathieu Dufour picking up the melodic train with some exquisite playing, or Albrecht Mayer handling runaway notes with aplomb, or Franz Schindlbeck dancing between violin lines with rampaging xylophone solos, everything was audibly accessible, and treated with great care and diligence.

Kopatchinskaja was in this evening a feisty performer, radiating warmth and energy through her confident body language and the occasional dollop of friendly smile. With this Schoenberg, impeccable technique and boundless confidence were a given, and were plentifully on display here; otherwise, some other piece would have been heard. Schoenberg’s lines sang all evening: the lines surely did not, nor were they intended by Schoenberg to, resolve to a definitive somewhere; but the music never stood still, but instead steadfastly aiming to go forward, if only vaguely somewhere. On execution, if Hilary Hahn’s famed treatment of the score was akin to a Joan Miró with finely delineated, abstract strokes, Kopatchinskaja’s was that of a Jackson Pollock, with seemingly hysterical but deliberate dancing patterns.

Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky was clean and clear, with singing melodic lines anchored with solid rhythmic tensions below. Solo winds were given ample space to inspire and fly; strings painted with such broad strokes as to remind us of vast oceans in far-flung corners of the Earth. Tchaikovsky’s dynamic swelling and swooning unfurled with due care. Pacing was just a tad on the swift end of things, especially in the final movement; other than a few passages that felt rather rushed, the overall product was a triumph of coherence and fine structure.

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.


Bolshoi/Polianichko: Eugene Onegin

Date: April 24, 2010
Conductor: Alexander Polianichko
Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Bolshoi in Beijing.

The Bolshoi Theatre opened this year’s NCPA Opera Festival with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The entire production set was shipped in from Moscow, and nearly 400 artists (on-stage and off-stage) traveled to Beijing to deliver a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s beloved masterpiece.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production is a warhorse and a money-minting machine, having already traveled to many opera houses around the world, including the Paris Opera, Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo, and Scala. The production set was basically comprised of two setups: a community room in the countryside of Acts 1 and 2, and an urban enclave for the privileged class of Act 3. Each room was set with a huge table as its centerpiece, with people gathering around it and managing their own business. The same table that was used by a lively, almost unruly community of rural villagers was also the place of solidarity for inspiring Tatyana’s letter writing. In Act 3, that same table was reused, after being cloaked with a white table cloth, as the pedestal on which Gremin’s lavish spread of silverwares and decorative excess – and by extension his wealth and stature – were showcased. The rooms were visually differentiable only through wall colors – an agrarian washed grey versus a lush burgundy red – as well as subtle props such as lighting fixtures – simple, unobtrusive decorative lighting versus an opulent chandelier spanning nearly half the proscenium’s width. It was thus through subtle visual clues that Tcherniakov laid out the settings in which the characters then flourished.

The evening’s leading lady was Ekaterina Scherbachenko, whose Tatyana was a hopeless romantic, a lovely and lovable dreamer who was shy, slightly introverted but full of passion. Scherbachenko, the most-recent Cardiff winner, entered her passages with confidence, and exhibited a scintillating upper extension as well as a firm, sultry lower register. If there was any tentativeness to her top notes, her persuasive acting made it sound like she was deliberately trying to mirror the role’s reclusive psychology.

Roman Shulakov was by comparison expressionless as Lenski, and his stage presence was rather paltry. His voice failed to project for much of the evening, and at times felt strained and hassled. It was not until his big aria at the end of Act 2 when he came to full force, as if a magic switch in his vocal instrument was suddenly turned on and all the dynamism and gravity that were heretofore lacking suddenly came to the fore. The emotive narrative associated with Lenski finally twirled in, even as Lenski was ready to head for his permanent exit. The subsequent applause was lukewarm, albeit due mostly to Alexander Polianichko’s iron-fisted timekeeping. Shulakov’s effort was not fully redeemed until his solo curtain call.

Vladislav Sulimsky’s Onegin was the insensitive, cocky playboy that Pushkin wrote him to be. A man’s man, Sulimsky’s Onegin had to resort to kneeling in front of Tatyana in the final scene to beg for another chance. That moment, assuming not improvised, was perhaps Tcherniakov’s nod to feminist power – the virulent concentration of egocentric testosterone shall eventually be defeated and humiliated.

Following the Russian tradition, the Triquet couplet was sung by Shulakov in Russian. Mikhail Kazakov delivered a rounded bass as Prince Gremin, and secured one of the most enthusiastic audience responses of the evening. Under the baton of Polianichko, the company delivered a sprightly analysis of the Russian composer’s masterpiece, though at times he seemed to have a hard time balancing the dynamics of a plump orchestra with the smaller voices on stage.

This production could be better: the centerpiece table, while pristine to look at, became stale as a theatrical display after about three scenes. The stage could have moved slightly forward towards the edge of the proscenium apron to reduce the distance between the soloists and the audience. Also, Bolshoi had two perfect chances during the waltz and the polonaise to showcase its ballet troupe, but professional dancing was nowhere to be found here – in my opinion a glaring programming mistake especially since its ballet troupe, already in town for La fille du Pharaon and Don Quixote, is world class. These small blemishes weren’t fatal, but they do compel one to ponder the what-ifs. But if anything, the revelatory presence of Scherbachenko has saved the day.

Bolshoi in Beijing.