Orchestral music

HK Sinfonietta/Penderecki: Penderecki, Shostakovich

Date: October 24, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Penderecki – Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor)
James Cuddeford (violin)

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, heretofore playing second fiddle to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the city’s better funded and higher profile cousin, should be congratulating its management and musicians for programming the ambitious and hard-to-please program featuring Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. Both pieces are twentieth century gems, basking in glorious critical reviews but lingering in the dark corners of the general public’s memory and imagination. One reason is that both pieces bordered, though did not entirely infringe upon, the atonal. Another reason is that both pieces do not offer so much of a reputable melody as a seemingly deliberate encryption thereof – purists may even find snippets of Shostakovich’s melodic tributes as sophomoric violations of plagiarism, and conclude the music to be an unconvincing original piece of art.

But controversy, coupled with newness in musical composition, is precisely the catalytic ingredients to an adventurous evening. Contrast that with the HK Phil’s conservatism (see here, here and here), there is much to be savored in tonight’s program. It helps that the concerto was led by the composer himself, and anchored by James Cuddeford, Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s concertmaster. Visually, Penderecki seemed to be a patient, unassertive type of maestro, who was ready to let the musicians present themselves in their most authentic way. Hong Kong Sinfonietta has not over the years developed a clear and trademarked style, but in front of Penderecki they seemed extremely alert and sensitive, especially to accents and notations. Winds sounded attentive, while strings charged with cohesive intelligence. James Cuddeford’s effort was nothing less than a musical and visual spectacle. His bowing was fluid and faultless, and his stopping and plucking supreme. Penderecki’s piece yearns for the interpreter’s interpretation, of which Cuddeford offered plenty here. Notations became Cuddeford’s train of thoughts, unleashed into the auditorium with a soulful being that loomed with gravity and presence. Cuddeford’s body swerved with Penderecki’s hauntingly beautiful melody, while melodic mood changes seemed readily reflected on the violinist’s well-chiseled, front cover-worthy face. Bowing and fingering could appear fragile and incomplete, but sounded crisp and solvent. As Cuddeford weaved through some of the quietest solo passages in Penderecki’s mystic work, his violin worked in ways that were serenely ephemeral but cryptic – as if he was spraying intergalactic dust onto the most silent, uninhabited space in universe’s most infinite expanse of nothingness. The capacity crowd at City Hall held their breath in suspense throughout much of the piece, fully realizing that the moment could quite possibly be the orchestra’s finest on record.

Less can be said of the Shostakovich which came after intermission, though the musicians were not to blame. If anything, the incredible performance of the Penderecki seemed to boost the musicians’ confidence. The beginning Allegretto was meticulously presented by the woodwinds and gallantly supported by the strings section, which was buffed up from the concerto’s leaner configuration. Trouble began in Adagio – Largo, when children’s noises started to creep into the auditorium. The noises seemed to arrive from behind the doors of the balcony section (which was closed for this particular concert), and did not subside for the rest of the movement. The treacherous brass phrases in pianissimo were completely breached by this profanity, and flushed into the toilet together with the musicians’ collective focus. Brass started to sound incoherent; strings sounded frigidly cautious, and percussion was barely able to hold onto Shostakovich’s intense rhythmic integrity. The third movement – a tribute to Wagner’s various operas – could not be more disastrous as the most intimate passages, including those somber passages featuring Siegfried’s death, were completely trespassed by the undiminished noises from outside the auditorium. This noise finally subsided in the final movement, but left a foul taste in the listeners’ collective memory. Penderecki would not have been pleased with this situation. If anything could be scavenged from this upheaval, as well as the collective destruction of musicians’ focus and the music, it would be a fitting memorial to a composition that paralleled, if not also reflected, the composer’s failing health and imminent death.

As the concert drew to a close, the orchestra was greeted with rounds of thunderous applause and waves of ovations – perhaps as a compliment to its ability to hold together despite the intrusion, for which the management of City Hall should be held entirely responsible. While the mishap dented the stupendous effort of the first half of the evening, there is no question that, by pulling off a risky programming, the management and programmers of the orchestra could now hold its head high, even with the city’s other orchestra in mind.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

Standard
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.

Standard