07 January, 2009

Concert Rrview: HKPO/Chen Sa/EdW

Jan 7, 2008
HKPO/Chen Sa/EdW

This single concert can be regarded as Dress Rehearsal for HKPO's impending China Tour.

A slightly reduced orchestra played the Beethoven First Half. The opener, Coriolanus, was rather tight and non-effective, devoid of drama.

The performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto (a favorite of mine) was excellent. Chen Sa's playing was meticulously detailed, yet spontaneous and poetic. Best of all, she knew when to punctuate a line in order to infuse drama, all within classical lines, except perhaps in rare moments of over-enthusiasm during runs down the keyboard. Her trills too were somewhat perfunctory (whose isn't these days?). Her playing had a rare inquisitive element, an endearing vocal quality that beckoned response. The orchestra played stylishly, and this marked the best I had heard of EdW as accompanist. More spontaneity on the orchestra's part though could have brought a greater sense of give-and-take and enhanced the fine, probing effort of Chen Sa. I had heard her Beethoven in a NY recital and this time I feel she has progressed artistically.

Chen Sa has a hugh personality, and in very high heels has an almost over-confident stride (pronounced arm swings). But she exudes charm and her stage manner is something perhaps the rather awkward Collen Lee can emulate a bit. If you compare the looks of Chen Sa during the Van Cliburn (on youtube) and her looks now, you shall realize it's a dramatic makeover, and a worthwhile one for a soloist. Make sure you visit her website for some lovely photos.

From early on in the Mahler Fifth it was apparent the orchestra had really rehearsed (like hell I'm sure) and improved on themselves significantly on the technical side of Mahler (at least for this occasion). In terms of strength and confidence in playing, this marked the pinnacle so far. The strings were still dry and sometimes rather awkward during gear changes but having the violin sections together helped a little in adding weight. It is my opinion that divided violins, for all its advantages and disadvantages in balance, do not suit the sound of this orchestra and conductor. Most amazing was the brass section, which for once rid themselves of whiteness. The horns should be singled out for excellence, a surprisingly robust sound in tutti and confident solos from Mark Vines. Kudos! The percussion had an extra sharpness and quickness that was appreciated, but I still cannot warm to Boznos' tympani. Though rather characterless when playing softly, the winds were tidy and blended well, though here I also still cannot warm to the rather pinched oboe sound of Michael Wilson. Special mention to the guest principal bassoon, Johan Steinman from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, who brought color, power and finesse to his instrument; a delight!

And so the Mahler was a great sonic experience of rhetorical rigor. However, the deficiencies of the "interpretation" was as equally noticeable as the great technical effort expended on the notes. Mahler himself did not believe in just delivering the notes, in his or anyone else's music. The program note noted that Mahler mused before this symphony's premiere: "What are they to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered only to crumble in ruins the moment after? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?"

I'd like to paraphrase Mahler's words to characterize the performance: "What are we to make of this proceeding devoid of a sense of chaos, in which every turn of captivating music-making are forever being endangered by prosaic and literal elements and crumble in ruins the moment after ? Where can we find the primeval music in this foaming sea that roared without rage? Beneath the surface brilliance, what are we to say to the lack of dance and the paucity of moments that illuminate and take the breath away?"

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