23 August, 2008

Books: Chinese Bridges

Book: Chinese Bridges
(photographed by Chester Ong)

I happened to run into this book during a hifi listening session. The magnificent bridge (in Fujian) on the cover immediately caught my eyes.

This is one of a series of "coffee table" books by the same team, but I think this one may be the best one.

This series has an EXCELLENT balance between the large number of photographs and surprisingly meaty text. Both are of excellent quality and, printed in Singapore, it is very good value, particularly on the net. It is available in Page One and otehr venues in HK , I was told.

I learnt a lot about Chinese bridges just by browsing!!! A great family book!

Helsinki Philharmonic: Sallinen/Sibelius/Kamu

23 August, 2008
Helsinki Philharmonic/Okko Kamu
Shenzhen Concert Hall

The typhoon waned just in time, and it was a beautiful day to visit the spacious environs of the Shenzhen Concert Hall.

Invited by the Ministry of Culture but sponsored "privately", Helsinki's China tour can be found on the website. That did not prevent the presence of
some people (not as many as during SSO concerts) hawking tickets as well as asking to buy tickets (probably the same people). It seems you can get tickets that are a bit cheaper than at the box office (probably complimentary tickets), and I see some intervention by guards. As for the SSO at this venue, although it seems nearly sold out as seen from online booking, the hall was no more than 40% full.

I sat to the left and a little closer to the stage than last time. Acoustics was excellent. Opening the program was Sallinen's "At the Palace Gate". Surprising for this grim composer (which Finnish one is not?), it is an atmospheric piece with music of episodes of wildly contrasting moods, somber and rollicking at times. It was beautifully played. The concert was privately sponsored and had only a flimsy program note leaflet that did not elaborate on the piece. Getting on the net, I found this is the overture to his opera "The Palace". Too bad there is no recording of just this.

The Sibelius violin concerto was played by Wang Zhijiong (王之炅), who placed third in the Sibelius competition in 2000. She is a very good player, most importantly a surprisingly musical player, who payed at least as much attention to counterpoint and phrasing than showmanship. Not surprisingly, considering her teacher was the always musical Yu Lina. The only drawbacks were her smallish tone and the slowish tempo. A little more passion would have been welcome too. The orchestra accompanied quite discreetly, but Kamu's reading was full of pointing details. The opening string pianissimo was ravishing (acoustics of this hall helps immensely)
but it was the superb dynamic gradation that was truly captivating。 The rhythmic precision was astounding, subtle and springing, but those looking for a galloping sense would have been disappointed.

A feeling crept into my mind during this perfromance. Yes, it was like hearing Scheherazade. The soloists was smallish, sometimes pleading. The orchestra, though exacting in quietude, was gargantuan when unleashed. The two never did converge fully like in Rimsky's piece, but it was a different interpretation for sure.

The orchestra and Kamu displayed their full splendor in Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. The long first movement kept its focus all the way. Kamu brought out a myriad of details without ever losing sight of the full canvas (like HKPO/EdW are prone to do). The playing was not the most beautiful. but it was certainly the most concentrated. Every note of the all-important woodwinds was played with proper dynamics, giving the opening unusual power. In this hall you can also fully delineate the string sections and appreciate the impeccable pharsing and the rythmic exactitude and counterpoint which Kamu used uncannily in building. The full and accurate brass with its seemingly unlimited reserve surprised me many times and enabled Kamu to build truly impressive crescendo's that were smooth and powerful at the same time.

The second movement was a revelation. Permeating the slowly unfolding permutations was a shimmer that subtly conveyed joy and celebration, a perfect foil to the sustained building of the first movement.

Under Kamu's iron grip, the third movement brought out the full import of this piece, building to a finale of incomparable grandeur. For once, the forces did not seem too small for the emotion expressed.

The performance was one of total committment and dissecting intellect which Sibelius deserved. It was not played as a red-hot romantic piece, but something much more complex. The sound world of Mahler kept propping into my mind during the perfromance. Not surprising, given Kamu's immaculate performance of Mahler's 4th with the AYO previously.

Encore was an excellent performance of Finlandia, for once a grand piece rather than a bombastic one。

07 August, 2008

Asian Youth Orchestra/Oliveira/Judd

7 August, 2008

Better weather, and the concert was packed. However, this brought with it a rather noisy audience; program books were dropped with alarming frequency and sound of
嗦鼻涕 was even more annoying.

A friend had an extra ticket and I sat with him downstairs, fourth row, rear stall center, under the balcony unfortunately. I gave up my usual seat upstairs to another friend who's a violin buff.

Program opened with Chen Yi's Momentum, which used just a little Chinese instrumental techniques and quotations. However, its craft is not immune from the usual dark colorings and fitful starts and stops that so characterize modern music. It was apparent even from the first note the orchestra was much more focused under James Judd.

Elmar Oliveira was a big surprise. He was in top form, technically better than his last showing with HKPO. His magnificent performance of the Tchaikovsky displayed his seasoned maturity and it was eminently clear that, unlike many younger firebrands and even old dogs, he had worked out every hurdle in this piece. The bars disappeared and the music had a seamless flow. He knew just when to edge on and when to be economical, and tight spots were few. His tone on the Guarneri was beautiful and he rode the orchestra comfortably. It was very much a soloist's performance as the orchestra had the same problem with partnering as the night before: they simply curiously disappeared in any passages softer than a forte. The audience roared and yells of bravo's ensued.

This was the best Tchaikovsky violin concerto I have heard live, despite the phantom orchestra.

James Judd showed his mettle in a sterling performance of Shostakovich's 5th. Much like last year's Okko Kamu, he transformed the orchestra into a much more focused, and hence more powerful ensemble. The slow opening already showed his grip, in not letting things sag by holding concentration rather than desperately driving. He built things patiently and graded his dynamics carefully. The second movement was sharply punctuated but the pride of the performance was the gem-like third movement, where the transcendental soft playing of the strings for once carried emotion. Just a slight lift of Judd's cupped left hand produced a swell in the strings, tender enough to be touching yet strong enough to be dramatic. It felt like a gentle tap on a floating balloon that sends it ascending slowly like dissipating smoke. What a marvel, something that cannot be reproduced by canned music, no matter how expensive the gears. Try playing this movement from your CD and see if you can hold on to the emotion. The rapture was unfortunately seriously marred towards the end by the intrusion of some kind of electronic device. The last movement started without pause and at a break-neck pace, which was soon moderated into an advance towards victory and for once sounds like a work of determination, not cacophony, so masterly and cleanly executed the pick-up in spirit and sound level in the march towards the finale. The thunderous applause was well deserved.

This fascinating conductor has interesting podium manner that is diametrically opposed from the tall Ponztious. Whereas the tall and lanky Pontzious frequently cowered, perhaps due to his short stature, Judd, who conducts without a baton and often with large gestures, just soars like a bird.

Despite the serious double jeopardy of underpowered double bass and brass, this was the best Shostakovich 5th I have heard. I had come to fear listening to this warhorse, played so often in a somewhat boorish manner by HKPO/Atherton. This piece now also seems a student orchestra favorite. We have heard it with CISMA/Dutoit and Verbier/Dutoit before. This subtle and thoughtful performance eclipsed them all.

The Concert will be aired on RTHK4 on 15 August at 8:00 pm.

06 August, 2008

Asian Youth Orchestra/Weilerstein/Pontzious

6 August, 2008
Asian Youth Orchestra/Weilerstein/Pontzious

It was nice to hear again the AYO, an an old friend. The typhoon waned just in time for me to get to the CCCH. Four friends joined me for the concert. Two of them got the LAST 2 tickets, but when we went in, we found a half empty hall.

It was really nice to have heard Barber's Second Essay, richly colored and atmospheric, sometimes a little like a film score.

This is my second encounter with Alisa Weilerstein in the same concerto! Of her NYPO performance 2 years ago (in NYC) I wrote before:

"...The audience was out in full force, no doubt to catch a glimpse of the young cellist Alicia Weilerstein in the Elgar cello concerto. She came out in a pink dress and played magnificently. Wasn't DuPre frequently dressed in pink? Her tone was hugh and beautiful, though sometimes just a bit off-center. She was tempestuous and took chances, and that was good. Perhaps a bit more pathos would not be wanting but too much to ask. The Elgar seems to be in vogue and this cellist's playing was superior to the others heard recently. Zubin Mehta accompanied most tightly but one wished for some tenderness. An English Elgar this was not..."

In comparison, last night's performance was somewhat of a let down. Tempo was debilitatingly slow. This brought out many moments of pathos and reflection, and the murmuring of the cello amid the beautiful pianissimo playing of the violins was quite a marvel.
Weilerstein's playing was more nuanced and quite different from before. She is playing this on tour with the AYO and surely trying out different things. She remains a spontaneous player and that's all to the good. A widened dynamic range, sometimes going from a strong attack immediately to a whisper, proved a difficult blend with the orchestra, which was suppressed too much by Pontzious, and the overall flow was quite distorted. Nonetheless, just as before, I admire her romantic abandon and spontaneity. And her lightning fast attacks, strong phrasing and accenting constitute the kind of playing I like to hear in the cello, which can just sound too flaccid too often. For an encore she played a movement of solo Bach, in her fearlessly unrepentingly romantic way. While it made me uneasy, this is one player to watch.

Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet excerpts showcased the orchestra's proficiency as well as its deficiencies. Overall the playing lacked the cogency of the Barber. There is no question the players have heart in spades, and this yielded many nicely characterized moments. The strings were marvelous in pianissimi, but just slightly less penetrating in fortissimi than their professional counterparts. The winds were surprisingly well blended and a joy to hear. The sometimes perilous playing of the horns had good tone. The brass, especially the low brass, was generally weak and louder passages were frequently not well supported, robbing crescendoes of heft, despite the valiant attempts of the generally good percussion section (weaker cymbal player). Part of this may be due to the conductor, who is a straight shooter. This time he got more color and tidiness out of the orchestra than his effort last year, but some roughness and seams were still showing. Last year the guest conductor Okko Kamu totally transformed the orchestra and I hope this year's James Judd can do the same. I still fondly remember the complete ballet given by the HKPO under guest conductor Richard Bernas in Shatin 。

As usual, the best was saved for last. The encore, the "Galop" from Kabalevsky's "The Comedians" was virtuosic and rousing.

The concert shall be simulcasted
on ATV World Channel and RTHK4 on 24 August at 1:55 pm.

01 August, 2008

AYO Artist-Faculty String Quartet

27 July, 2008
AYO Artist-Faculty String Quartet
RTHK4 Studio

This ad-hoc string quartet is formed by faculty members of the Asian Youth Orchestra, the biographies of which can be found in the AYO website (see links to the right). The Schubert Quartet no. 13, D804, "Rosamunde" came across rather disastrously in the dry acoustics of RTHK4 studio. The biggest problem was the first violinist Thanos Adamopoulos, whose wildly uneven playing and weak tone failed to lead nor gel with the other strings.

The ensuing Shostakovich Piano Trio no. 2 (first 3 movements only) was a whole lot better. Lynn Chang, who was second-violin before, took charge and played beautifully well together with cellist Rhonda Rider (well known in modern music and has many CDs to her credit). Apparently they all hailed from Boston (violist Marcus Thompson too) and played a lot together before in chamber music. Pianist Long I Ian, from the student orchestra and HKAPA, played dutifully but not incisive enough for this piece.

The concert was much longer than the usual RTHK4 fare, as there were interviews of all four players. "Boss" Richard Pontzious was there together with guest conductor James Judd. The latter was low-key but I thought the former was pretentious in his praise of the Schubert.

The concert showed that just putting a few players together does not chamber music make.