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.