27 July, 2008

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.

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