08 March, 2009

Concert review: SZO/Ehwald/Mahler 6th

Concert review: Shenzhen SO/Ehwald/Mahler 6th

06/03/2009, SZ Concert Hall

Mahler Sixth Symphony

The bad weather that preceded the concert could have been used as a metaphor for what I went through to hear this concert, the first of SZO's spring season.

Up till a few weeks ago, only the unreliable SZSO website listed this concert, It took another week to find out it was to be played in the SZ Concert Hall. However, as the SZ Concert Hall website (a more reliable one) did not show the concert I was deeply suspicious of the accuracy of the info. Two weeks ago I decided to call the SZSO. From the website I only got the personnel department, which did answer me that the tickets were not on sale yet. Finally, one week ago I saw this concert listed in the Concert Hall website and knew it was for sure.

The weather cleared in time for the concert. It was not well attended, perhaps at 60% capacity. This was lower than usual; I guess Mahler fares just as badly across the border as in HK. Even fewer ticket sellers outside (usually there are many, probably selling free tickets from the sponsor bank).

Originally, the Schubert "unfinished" was the opener. It was not until I sat down that I found it was eliminated. Just as well, though I did wonder whether they had run out of rehearsal time. The performance bore out my theory a little.

Ehwald conducted a cogent account, but the expanded orchestra's performance fell shy of the regular orchestra's standard. The symphony was lauched energetically. Although tension sagged a little here and there, overall the dramatic tension was well maintained, and Ehwald graded his dynamics carefully and kept the long line integral. Although the scherzo successfully conveyed the macabre with a myriad of rather refined details, it lacked a certain brusqueness and was ultimately a little tame for my taste. Ehwald throughout balanced the winds prominently and this in the slow movement's meant the string surges lacked a little in sweep. Here too it was also clear more sweetness in the strings would have been beneficial. The finale was structurally sound and it was clear Ehwald had carefully built the climaxes and kept things moving. However, I did miss a sense of menace and struggle, which made the hammer blows less meaningful.

As a whole, although well paced and finely graded in dynamics, this unsentimental account missed some of the struggle in the rhetoric. The orchestra tried hard but it was obvious ensemble and tone (particularly the brass) could have used more polish. In his solo moments, concertmaster Zhang Le was singularly uninsipiring. Nonetheless, given the lack of Mahler experience (much more so than the HKPO) and better instruments I'd say Ehwald did a sterling job (as he did for the previous Brahms, Bartok and Schubert that I heard). I shall continue to try to hear this fine but little known conductor as often as possible.

p.s. ex-HKPO oboe principal Huang Zheng is now principal oboist of the SZO.

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