23 January, 2009

Concert Review: 2009 A HKPO Blundering Odyssey

Concert Review: 2009 A HKPO Blundering Odyssey

Jan 23, 2009

This event marked one of the greatest blunders ever on the part of the "planners" of HKPO. A pair of concerts on two of the days when many, if not most, of the HK Chinese actually hold the all-important Chinese New Year's Eve dinner. Naturally, box office were abysmal (I suspected it when I bought tickets; not one seat in my section had been sold; something I have never seen in more than a decade of buying HKPO tickets). In desperation, HKPO sent out a hugh number of emails and gave a large number of tickets away in pairs. This of course does not make me happy, especially since this concert without soloist was priced at a higher level. More importantly, it's a complete waste of our tax money, which still funds much of HKPO's expenses.

The program was not an easy one for the HK audience. Even some classical fans whom I met at the concert (attending with free tickets) did not know Thus Spake Zarathustra. The concert name/promo was a disaster too. It shows the lack of sensitivity to local culture on the part of the HKPO administration. In English, it's A Viennese Odyssey, which is fine. In Chinese it says 2001 Space Odyssey, which means little to the majority of HK people, who have not watched Kubrick's movie. The man behind me explained to his companion: "...I guess something to do with some space event that happened in 2001... ". If you have to resort to gimmickry, do it so everyone understands! In the promotional leaflet and program notes, Kubrick's movie was not mentioned at all.

Of course, I understand tickets were desperately given away to avoid Zinman facing an empty hall. Perhaps the administration can also review how come so many people would come on free tickets but otherwise would not have attended. Perhaps HKPO has used up all of its advertising money on endlessly promoting solely EdW? There's no escape...

Shame on you, HKPO administration!

Which is too bad, since the musicians and Zinman deserved a lot better. The program was a difficult but rewarding one.

Webern's Passacaglia was beautifully played by the orchestra who, under Zinman, shed much of their nervous quality under EdW. Zinman deftly brought out the chiseled quality of the piece, as well as its occasional outburst of lyricism. Even at this early point it was clear Zinman, reputed to be an "objective" conductor, can bring out warmth when he chooses to. This vies for the best opener I have ever heard the orchestra play.

The fine, naturally breathing quality of the playing extended to the next piece, the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony. Fellow concertgoer KL described it best: "...I like the way Zinman took his time to tell the story...". While Zinman's Mahler interpretation was certainly not in the sentimental "Death in Venice" camp, neither was it anything like EdW's parched terrain. Zinman artfully balanced the heaves and sighs, yet did not forget to give us a little tone-painting while maintaining momentum. The resulting canvas was one softly colored but rich in hue and, yes, with a Viennese quality, particularly at the end, where the connection with Strauss was hard not to notice.

Among Strauss' tone poems, Thus Spake Zarathustra is definitely the one that is the most difficult to bring off, being not as obviously swaggering as Don Quixote or Ein Heldenleben; not as scenic as the Alpine Symphony; not as frothy as Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel. Rather, allied to its subtext, its blend of the earthy and reflective can easily defeat a lesser conductor. Both the conducting and the playing here had a few lapses in concentration, yet the whole was an achievement, with Zinman mostly successful in knitting the fabric together and the orchestra cohesive though lacking a little in opulence. Zinman graded dynamics masterfully, coaxing relaxed and real crescendos out of the orchestra when needed, yet pointing out details along the way. Humor, a lilting sense of rhythm and a waltz atmosphere were also in evidence, and all of these contributed to the kaleidoscope that is Thus Spake Zarathustra, for once not a piece that just lives for the organ entry.

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