27 July, 2008

The incredible RYU GOTO

26 July, 2008

The very young Ryu Goto, brother of Midori, is now one of the brightest violin stars on the horizon. I’d say he’s already a complete violinist.

The Japanese turned out in drones, and it was a full house at City Hall. whlee and I sat in the balcony. The orchestra is quite small. There has been quite a bit of personnel changes since I last heard them. I was surprised to see the excellent cellist Laurent Perrin now relegated to assistant principal. While I welcome the new oboist Louise Hayter I was saddened by the departure of the magnificent flutist Gillespie! Sound of the orchestra is tighter knit and certainly the winds has improved a lot as a whole, but the string section was a little bass deficient.
The Paganini #1 is a curious piece.

No two performances, including those on recordings, seem to have the same edition! Nothing, absolutely nothing could have deterred me from complete enjoyment of the playing of Ryu Goto. It was PERFECTION. I have heard no one else who sounds completely at ease with the Stradvarius, who plays evenly on all strings and not lose volume when pressed. His playing has everything. Perfect technique is a way way over-used term, but not if used on Goto! Here, technique also means making everything sound at ease, making every phrase tell, making the bass notes walk, making suspense. In other words, it was a mellifluously vocal performance. He played two heavenly long Paganini encores. The first one is the “Introduction and variations on ‘God save the King’” and the second one is “Nel cor piu mi sento”. It hardly matters what this young man plays, for you can just sit there all day and hear him, glued to the seat and hardly even blinking. No, I think I’d go watch him do anything!

The ensuing Brahms 1st was reasonably well played, but a non-sequitur nonetheless. The concert opened with Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra.

Haven’t been so excited since Hilary Hahn’s first Brahms violin concerto with the HKPO (not his second with EdW). Now can I hear Goto in the same piece?? No Tchaikovsky or Beethoven please.

Concert Review: SZSO/Nichiteanu/Ehwald

Concert Review: SZSO/Nichiteanu/Ehwald

25 July, 2008, Shenzhen Concert Hall


My friend classicalkan called me last minute and I was happy to have attended the concert with him.

My first time in this venue, which is only a little more than 1 year old, I was told. I was fooled by the outward appearance (including the ticketing lobby) and the pics in their website. My high expectation was immediately deflated as soon as I entered the “grand” atrium of the hall, pictured in the website. The cheap grey “marble” flooring is aesthetically pleasing compared to the vulgar and golden pillars/totems rising from the floor, which remind me of the much classier metal ones suspended from the ceiling of the Avery Fisher Hall in New York. The staircases, outside and inside the hall, are all wood and you can imagine the noise generated by the ladies’ heels. The hall has a dark mahogany scheme. The “mahogany” wood of the stairs and panels all show an alarming degree of wear, especially at the edges.

The hall is cavernous, and alarmingly like a much larger Cultural Center Concert Hall. It is polygonal and has many more levels than ours. Unusually, it is assymetrical and you can catch this on the seating plan on the website. My cheaper seat (“Forth class” on the ticket) is difficult to access, but comfortable, and leg room is good. From so high up, the players on stage looked like ants. The light colored stage looks dirty and marked.

The Serly completion of the Bartok viola concerto was played. Marius Nichiteanu is principal of the NDR and the best violist I have ever heard. Not only did he have power and refinement, and a good instrument, his Romanian origin likely helped in adding color and a gypsy flavor to some of the passages. The orchestra played beautifully and idiomatically under Ehwald’s baton.

Given the tight Brahms I heard last week, I was a little surprised by the slightly slower tempo of Schubert’s 9th. Ehwald had the same iron grip, but unfolded the drama patiently. Unlike many recordings, this one neither drives the music hard (which this symphony can take) nor dwell on the longeurs. The architectural integrity and breath of the conducting was impressive. Equally satisfying were the details, some ominous and telling. The playing of the orchestra was on an even higher level than just the week before. I continue to be mightily impressed by the winds section. Nay, I am a fan now of them! They just produce the most harmonious blend, which the HKPO has yet to achieve. This, and the brilliant solo’s, particularly from the reed players, just helped immensely. Only in the last movement did the players start to tire and the energy dropped a bit. They deserved the big ovation they got.

The audience was reasonably well behaved. My friend sat in another section, an aisle seat and he reported that people were just coming and going at will, distracting. It seems management here is not that tight. Avoid aisle seats!

Last, the sound, which is gratifyingly clear and warm, a grace which this monstrosity needs.

Concert review: SZSO/Ehwald/All Brahms

Concert review: SZSO/Ehwald/All Brahms

18 July, 2008,
Shenzhen Concert Hall (深圳大劇院音樂廳)
All Brahms/Chen Xi/Christian Ehwald

Finally, on Friday 18/07 I got into the 深圳大劇院音樂廳 to listen to music! The structure of the venue is one low-rise ugly box, from the 80’s I think, with one big foyer. After the ushers got my ticket I noticed that they also serve as improvising guardians of whatever required check-in, like bottled water. These were just placed along the staircase, with a little sheet of numbered paper under each item. Strange that this place lacks check-in facility.

The concert hall itself, renovated I am sure, is actually very very nice. Too bad the website has no pic. It is in the form of 2 trapezoids joined at the base, hence widest in the center. The size, design and materials used, even sound, resemble some of our various City Halls: the stage resembles a big horn and wood paneling everywhere. There are irregularly spaced and beautiful little triangular structures wedged into the nice white ceiling, no doubt for acoustic attenuation. Seats are terraced, rising all the way to the back, and comfortable. I sat one row from last, hence high up.

The stage is rather small even for these modestly scored pieces. The orchestra has full strings, 14, 14, 11, 12, 8. As soon as the introduction to the Brahms violin concerto started I knew things were going to be OK musically. One obstacle however remained. A newspaper reporter brought his photographer who set up his camera on a tripod very close to my seat. The shutter noise was irritating.

Violinist Chen Xi, I is a rising star and the 2002 silver medal winner of the Tchaikovsky competition:


He just graduated from Curtis and you can catch his recital here:


The violin entry was promising, bold and forceful, even vehement. Acoustics of the hall is dry from my seat, but one hears everything and the violin sound was perfect. The big tone worked well with the orchestra, driven cogently by conductor Christian Ehwald, who conducted with economical gestures and did not in particular pare down to accommodate the soloists (this one did not need it). Some bars later, rising to the top the string snapped and the music stopped.

I took the opportunity to “bark” at the photographer, who was a nice young man and who went off, to my delight and the cheers of my neighbors! “罵得對!”

Chen Xi returned with another violin and the music resumed from just before the violin entry. The tone of this violin was not like the strad before, but sometimes that’s a blessing to me. Aren’t you tired of hearing strads? Understandably, Chen struggled for a while before gaining composure. The playing was generally excellent in the faster passages but, as is often the case with young musicians, simple figurations and ruminations proved a little unsettling. The deliberate cadenza was indulgent. But it’s evident this violinist laudably tried to be spontaneous, which he some of the time, and I’d like to hear him again. The orchestral contribution was excellent.

I was eagerly looking forward to the Brahms symphony #4 and I was not disappointed. Ehwald conducted without a score and knew every little turn of this symphony. He delivered a sophisticated performance that nonetheless never lost sight of Brahms’ earthy elements. Rhythms were tight and bass line exceptionally strong. Anchored thus, the contrasting lyrical passages were all the more effective and beautiful. The finale was well paced and built single-mindedly towards the climax.

The playing was not without faults, but emotionally generous (unlike our HKPO). The strings were magnificent, the upper strings penetrating and the lower ones authoritative. The winds took a while to warm up and sounded reasonably blended. I was impressed by all of the principals and their grasp of style. The horns surprised me with their overall proficiency and full tone that was a little dark, though full of passion. The brass is excellent and full sounding. And it was a pleasure to hear for once good tympani playing. The fully committed performance and expert conducting moved me deeply and got a hugh and passionate applause from the audience.

Overall I was impressed by the ushers’ efforts and audience etiquette. The audience behaved surprisingly well, even the children.

A magnificent effort. It’s soul warming to hear such music-making after much blandness-as-mastery in Hong Kong.

Shenzhen Symphony orchestra: My Odyssey

Shenzhen Symphony orchestra: My Odyssey

My journey to the SSO concerts, with its many hiccups, some exasperating and others just hilarious, is an odyssey. First, I shall try to help you navigate through the quagmire that is SSO, for this is an orchestra that you should pay attention to!

The SSO is I think run by the government, not itself, and there lies the big divide. The administrators, including the webpage designers, just don’t know what they are doing. On the net you can find many blogs and posts by ex-musicians, expatriates who got exasperated by the bureaucracy. Looking at the musician list you will find only a handful of expatriates now. In particular, I miss the fabulous Russian cellist Artem

Konstantinov, who was principal cellist. Visit the website as a rough guide but DON’T believe everything you read! View in particular the concert schedule.

The 2008-2010 seasons have fortunately been sponsored by 交通銀行, which, together with the appointment of German conductor Christian Ehwald as Artistic Director, shall hopefully inject some stability into the organization. I first noticed this not from the website, but from a flyer issued by the bank which I picked up at 大劇院.

Please note 深圳大劇院音樂廳 and深圳音樂廳 are DIFFERENT venues!!!

(A) 深圳大劇院音樂廳

This is obviously part of the older 深圳大劇院, which, like some of our venues, has an opera house as well as a concert hall. It is in Lo Wu district, easily reached by taking the MTR to 大劇 stop. It is close to the Lo Wu Book City. The concert I am about to report was played here. The official website.

(B) 深圳音樂廳

(Shenzhen Concert Hall) is a much newer and outwardly chic venue, located in Futian district, in a complex that also contains the architecturally matched SZ Central Library and nearby Central Book City. It can be reached by taking the MTR to 少年宮 stop. The location is closer to Huanggang and Lok Ma Chau checkpoints than to Lo Wu. From the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint (can be reached on the HK side by MTR as well as KMB B1) you can get into the SZ MTR directly right after customs and not get on to the street until you have reached destination! The venue also hosts many visiting orchestras. Coming up are the Asian Youth Orchestra (same programs as HK), the Helsinki (with the excellent Okko Kamu!), to mention only two. Visit the website.

Now, to my odyssey.

Back a few months ago, before I got organized on the web, I only occasionally physically visited (when I visited the Lo Wu Book City) the 大劇院 for concert information and to pick up the good Shenzhen ARTMAP (published by the HK organization). This is really not that efficient nor reliable. I noticed a concert flyer and the Russian female cellist soloist caught my attention. But when I inquired they said “sorry, cancelled” even though the flyers were still out there. You can also see from a previous link that cancellation is rather common here! Here I issue

Advisory 1: For the SSO, don’t get tickets early to avoid cancellations.

The 交通銀行 sponsorship is a more recent thing, and it was only recently that I picked up the flyer. The flyer is almost exactly like this webpage

At that time, I became interested in the 3 concerts of Ehwald, 11/7, 18/7 and 25/7. On the flyer, for ALL 3 concerts, the venue is listed as 深圳音樂廳. I inquired at the box office of 大劇院 on 2 separate occasions and was told either “No information” (first time, earlier on) or “No tickets for sale, possibly internal event!” (second time, only 2-3 weeks ago!). When I came back to HK, I was stunned to see on the website that the venue is listed as深圳大劇院音樂廳 instead!!! Finally I visited深圳音樂廳 2 weeks ago and got the ticket for 18/7, indeed held at 深圳大劇院音樂廳.

Then, for the concert of 25/7, which I was interested in: The venue column on the SSO webpage was perilously left blank. But the concert hall webpage was more confident:

Since I trust the concert hall webpage more than ANYTHING from the administration of the SSO, I took it that the concert would be held at 深圳音樂廳. Here I issue

Advisory 2: As with many things in SZ, things change quickly. So, for SSO concerts, it is a MUST to (i) check out all the web info you can get and (ii) crosscheck info on all sites, keeping in mind that (iii) SSO webpage is the least reliable.

Finally I attended the concert of 18/7at 深圳大劇院. I couldn’t believe it, it was finally happening!!! However…not before some more hiccups. On that night, I noticed people outside the venue trying to buy as well as sell tickets, and it was sold out! More likely, tickets were given out by the bank to their VIP customers (said so on the flyer; there’s a hotline for such customers). I got there early, and the ticket window was mobbed (“Sound of Music” was playing at the theater). I wanted to buy the ticket for 25/7. The young lady said “Sure, available” and then ran into problems at the computer. Many minutes passed before another lady said “Tickets not sold here”. I was getting mad but walked away to cool off. Then I returned and asked another lady who told me they stopped selling tickets for the event because the ticket itself could not be printed properly on their machine. Apparently, unlike HK, tickets themselves are not unified. Organizations/venues supply their own tickets to be printed on the machine. That’s my understanding, or do I actually understand??? Here I issue:

Advisory 3: For certain popular SSO events (use your judgement), don’t buy tickets last minute either. Might be sold out! I know I know…

Advisory 4: It’s OK to buy tickets at the深圳音樂廳, but try to avoid the box office of the 深圳大劇院, for obvious reasons.

There are internet options as well as SZ local delivery hotline, but I haven’t tried them.