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.

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Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Berg, Beethoven

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Kwangchul Youn (bass)

 

Ushering the Berlin Philharmonic into the Petrenko era was a series of Beethoven 9 concerts, with two concerts in Berlin followed by stints at successive European summer festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. This review from Salzburg was therefore Petrenko’s third concert as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. The program featured two works that could not be more contrasting in mood and nature: that of Berg, a plot of humanity’s despair and disintegration; and that of Beethoven 9, humanity’s hymn for universal brotherhood.

The Berg’s score, in the hands of an average orchestra, could feel weighty and muddled. But here, instrumental lines flowed in mid-air, with rhythms of four against three and two against three crisscrossing each other, like a feisty swarm of butterflies fluttering their wings vibrantly, yet cleanly and without touching each other. A good example was in the Rondo, with the music in reference to the escape plot to bring Lulu to Paris. Lulu is pretending to be an invalid, and the music that accompanies her act is lightweight, borderline comical. The woodwind counts in two and plays in triplets of notes, while the piano counts in three and plays triplets. The music was moving so quickly that the sequence would have been easily missed. But here, the Berliner’s execution was clean and clear, with rhythms held aloft in a delicious call and response. Another good example was how each long line of the Act 2 trombones, often as anchor or trailer to bright trumpet moments, never seemed muddled. Their exhibition was a masterclass of rhythmic diligence and persuasive phrasing.

Marlis Petersen, as Lulu, gave an impassioned performance. Her voice was suitably prepared at her entrance, as if she had been warming up her voice and singing Lulu’s part anyway while the Suite was in motion. Her diction was clear; and her delivery was supple.

If the ambiguously resolution of the last chords of Berg was intent to sink the audience hearts, the latter piece’s beginning fifths by Beethoven, if purely by its embryonic and yet-to-be-shaped intention, did not immediately prove to repeal the former. It was not until the triple forte section, when the third was finally introduced, that there was no longer any doubt about how, after Berg’s total repudiation of humanity, the evening was about to be rehabilitate. What came after was a rebuilding, chord by chord, layer by layer. Petrenko was patient, taking his time through the first three movements to build up motions, occasionally suppressing them just enough so as to enable a long arch leading to the fourth movement’s climactic end.

The Schreckensfanfare, approached with an unrelenting fury, ruptured the tension built heretofore. The double basses’ introduction of the title theme was so united in intonation, color and clarity, as if the basses were forged into one giant instrument. Tempo picked up slowly with briskness, in a statement of an increasingly vibrant life, even flirting slightly with the rushed side of things, as if to illustrate the vivacity in human emotion. But where the orchestra seemed to be juicing just above comfort, its sound came across more as confidently urgent than blindly hard-driven. When the proceedings got hot, musicians cooled down by playing farther behind the baton, most evidently by Emmanuel Pahud’s solo at the poco ritenente, just before the baritone’s first entrance.

Petrenko was not the only one making a prominent debut on this occasion. Benjamin Forster, who replaced the retiring Rainer Seegers as solo timpanist, made a glorious debut as solo timpanist, in this all-important part of the instrument’s classical repertoire. His playing style was minimalist and scrupulously efficient. And he seemed shy when Petrenko singularly called him out during the extended and thunderous applause.

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Orchestral music

Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann: Strauss, Bruckner etc.

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.

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Opera

Shanghai/Oren: La Boheme

Date: October 18, 2012
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Production: Damiano Michieletto
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

This Boheme production, co-funded by the Salzburg Festival and the Shanghai Grand Theatre (in association with Shanghai Opera House), premiered in Salzburg earlier this summer. One of the production’s performances became international news when Jonas Kaufmann stepped in at the very last minute to replace the voice of an indisposed Piotr Beczala.

Director Damiano Michieletto reframed the 19th century Parisian story in a contemporary form more attuned to the attitudes and lives of young people today: artists who wear blue jeans, leather jackets and work boots, and shoppers who horde shopping carts. In Scene I, the artists’ garret was a bachelor’s pad of living essentials, trash, and little else. The Latin Quarter of Scene II was depicted as giant Lego blocks, a la Carthage in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens, and was surrounded with projections of animated Google maps. In Scene III, a food truck parked along a snow-covered, desolate highway to nowhere, while drunken party merrymakers stumbled across and towards their way home. When Rodolfo cried out Mimi’s name towards the end in what would be the entire production’s most poignant moment, various background screens were projected with images of fogged-up windows, on which a hand spelled out Mimi’s name. As the orchestra played the opera’s final notes, the hand wiped the name away, as if paralleling heroine’s doomed fate. Several in the audience gasped in tones of sadness.

The production was not without issues. The artists’ garret, spanning the entire proscenium of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, lacked communal intimacy that one would expect in the scene. More troubling, however, was that mechanical scene change began even before Scene I ended, as the background props angled sideways to make room for the Lego blocks while the two leads were deep into O soave fanciulla. These stage movements were visually impressive, and perhaps served to show the spatial and temporal transition from the artists’ private space to the public fanfare. However, these movements also stole much limelight away from the all-important interaction between Rodolfo and Mimi, as well as their beautiful music.

With a crisp but pinched voice, Jose Bros, as Rodolfo, sounded more bel canto than verismo at the beginning, though his voice warmed up enough by Scene III to deliver Puccini’s delicious passages with more dynamic vibrancy and emotion. Fiorenza Cedolins sang her Mimi with a comfortable top and robust dynamics, but with so much power that her galactic voice frequently overwhelmed Bros’s. Marco Caria had a solid outing as Marcello, providing vocal heft and emotive security as Rodolfo’s sidekick. Zhang Jianlu (張建魯), sounding slightly coarse and throaty, came across as composed and thoughtful in Colline’s short but dramatically critical soliloquy. Guo Sen (郭森) outshone all her counterparts as Musetta by phrasing her lines diligently and acting with an impassioned gusto. Dramatically, she was properly giddy and playful in Scene II, and sullen but compassionate in the opera’s final scene. Deservedly, Guo received the most fervent applause at the curtain. This performance was also a homecoming of sorts for Guo — before building a successful career in Europe, she studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was a performer at the Grand Theatre’s grand opening back in 1998. The Shanghai Opera House Symphony Orchestra had moments of brilliance spoiled not only by occasionally unbalanced dynamics in the brass section but also by the overwhelmed lower strings. Daniel Oren’s conducting was akin to dragging an overweight elephant over thick mud, especially in Scene I. Oren also displayed a rough time holding together the tutti passages of Scene II. To his credit, after the intermission and till the end, he managed a brisk pace and fine cohesion.

The October 18 performance in Shanghai marked the official opening of the 14th Shanghai International Arts Festival. As was customary in China, plenty of VIPs showed up and their presence be acknowledged, including the art-loving Hua Jianmin (華建敏), the deputy chief of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and Han Zheng (韓正), Shanghai’s mayor. The opera was preceded by a half-hour, lavish ceremony replete with fancy disco lights, and an a capella group singing bubbly songs of unity and prosperity. The irony could not be more fitting after the opera, when the audience filed back to the subway station nearby and was greeted by dozens of homeless eager to find fleeting warmth and refuge.

Scene 1, La Boheme. Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 2, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 3, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

The homeless, inside the subway station next to the opera house. The similarity between this scene and the last scene of Boheme is profound.

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