10 October, 2021

Zuo Zhang Zee Zee Recital

Concert Review: Zuo Zhang (Zee Zee) Recital

Oct 9, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Zuo Zhang 左章 (Zee Zee) Recital 旅行岁月
Scarlatti - Wagner - Schoenberg - Liszt - Ravel

Shenzhen local Zuo Zhang, known as Zee Zee, had won prizes in many competitions, built up quite a reputation and is now DG artist. I likely could have heard her here in SZ many times in her more formative years but missed. I started to notice her after I heard her DG album with the excellent Z.E.N.Trio (with first rate partners; violinist Esther Yoo and cellist Narek Hakhazaryan): her playing and control of the narratives completely anchored the trio and captivated me.

This concert was supposed to have happened in May, after her similar program in Hong Kong (which my friend Andrew briefly commented on in a past post), but was postponed due to a sporadic covid case here then. The new date turned out to be a bad choice as a typhoon pounded the region (it rained heavily for over 48 hours). The turnout was very low.

The program was centered around some of the most famous numbers from Liszt's Annees de Pelerinage, a magnum opus whose Chinese translation 旅行岁月, suboptimal as it may be (as 旅行 is Travel, which misses the connotation of Pilgrimage,) is used as the Title of this Recital. 

First, the Liszt centerpieces. The First Half featured Vallee d'Obermann, the Second Les Jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este and Venezia e Napoli - Tarantella. These were dispatched with aplomb, but in surprisingly efficient fashion - by this I mean tempi on the fast side, with less lingering and sculpting than usual. Indeed, dynamic range seemed less wide than usual. When the going got busy, there was a certain tonal and textural homogeneity. If all this seemed damning, it is not at all, as her considerable strengths ensured that everything worked. Although the color palette was not very wide, everything she played had a burnished quality; notes and hands were perfectly delineated from each other, miraculously without hint of dissection or intellectual dryness. She is definitely not one who would refine her treble notes compulsively a la Krystian Zimerman, but they have fullness, a rare quality (if coming across as slightly blunt at times). When it comes to the left hand, perhaps in absolute heft there are a few pianist who could deliver more, but she is no slouch and delightfully hers was always clearly audible even in busy passages. For all the musicality, fluidity and natural momentum, there were remarkable details to be had, and all the notes were for once not pulled around. These were refreshing readings that I enjoyed and that avoided the lugubriousness and longeurs which plague Liszt in lesser hands.

The Liszt Jeux d'eau was followed by the lovely Ravel piece of the same name instead of the originally scheduled, more substantial Gaspard de la Nuit. Too bad.

Concert opened with two Scarlatti Sonatas not originally in the program. A little more pointing would have had greater effect. Then came Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude to Act 1, which I presume ties in to the journey theme of the program (the couple were on a boat). The rendition was a little cool, and the simmering tension was not completely brought to the fore. All this did not prepare me for the astonishing performance of Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstucke, Op.11, his first atonal work (not sure where the theme of journey fits in). Unlike the rest of the program, the pianist here was fiercely concentrated and played in highly coloristic fashion, structurally tight yet warmly effusive. Her left hand was particularly telling and a comforting anchor. Unlike many a recording of this piece, which can make the piece seem white and bland, this live performance was a gem and worth the price of admission alone. Bravo!

The weather was horrible -  a bad day. The past year had been a very bad time for musicians, not to mention one who's just become a mother. I wonder if it had taken a toll on the pianist. Her shortening of the program, and the overall fast tempo, could have been efforts to combat the circumstances, including the morale-deflating low attendance (mind you, the audience here are of lower caliber too - fact, not a patronizing statement). She gracefully thanked the audience for coming despite the weather. Only one encore was offered. Now, all this is wild guess on my part.

My friend Andrew had commented on her stage manner. Having gained weight during her recent pregnancy, she was dressed in black, pants and a jacket. That was not the problem. Perhaps nerves? She was in a hurry getting on and off stage, and was a little awkward. A little more grace under pressure and willingness to work the audience would have been helpful. Nonetheless, I am convinced this lady is one I should follow, and I will. Technically secure, she has fire underneath and something most precious, unerring sense of direction.

24 September, 2021

Ningbo Symphony Orchestra Mahler 3

Click pic to enlarge.

Concert Review: Ningbo Symphony Orchestra Mahler 3

Sept 20, 2021, Shenzhen Grand Theater 深圳大剧院
Ningbo Symphony Orchestra 宁波交响乐团 - Yu Feng 俞峰 - Zhu Huiling 朱慧玲
Chorus of the Central Conservatory 中央音乐学院合唱团
Shenzhen Senior High School Lily Girls Choir 深圳高级中学百合合唱团
Mahler Symphony No. 3

While the threat of relatively nearby Fujian Province's COVID outbreak is still looming on the horizon, I lucked out on this narrow window (given the many previous cancellations, I am actually surprised that somehow the authorities here allowed these concerts, albeit at diminished capacity). Astonishingly, the second Mahler concert in 5 days!

Years of unprecedented economic growth in China had fueled the quest for cultural prestige, and with it growth of many symphony orchestras. A stone's throw away from China's leading orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, are (at least) the well established Hangzhou and Suzhou Symphony Orchestras and, the youngest, Ningbo Symphony Orchestra (established 2015). Keep in mind that these are all prosperous cities in China's most prosperous region. You may not know Ningbo is the largest port in the world (by tonnage handled) and ripples are still being felt around the world due to the worldwide shipping delays caused by its partial pause during a recent covid outbreak. Let's hope China's impending economic downturn does not impede the artistic growth of these orchestras.

A note on the venue. The SZ Grand Theater is an older (and nice) hall, home to its own medium sized orchestra (which I have never heard), which offers humbler fare than the larger Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra (which usually plays in the bigger and acoustically superior Shenzhen Concert Hall). The wood-paneled hall looks rather like HK's City Halls. This is a hall that sounded good when I attended concerts here before, though previously I sat downstairs, not upstairs.

I'd let the cat out of the bag here. Despite a valiant effort, the Ningbo is not quite Shenzhen. It began promisingly enough. The all-important trombones and horns were very good in tutti, and the trumpets were secure. The first oboe's entry was not very good, but she proved excellent later, as did all the wind principals (great clarinet soloist). As the gargantuan first movement unfolded, serious weaknesses manifested themselves. The horns are of supreme importance in this work, and the section sounded well enough when they played loudly in unison. However, when the level dropped to (mezzo) forte and below, they lost expression and became very bland, even tenuous. And then the strings, which were obviously of smaller size and impact than their Shenzhen counterpart. I am not sure whether the acoustics played a part - they sounded uncomfortably grainy when pushed.

The veteran conductor is an important figure in China. He still is head of the Central Conservatory. He moved things steadily on and navigated transitions skillfully, but was not necessarily the most expressive. As an example, the Minuet lacked lilt and the scherzo could have used more fantasy. The two vocal movements could also have been more hushed. The older ladies were in the back and the Girls Choir squeezed onto the front, on both sides. They sang well enough but I missed a Boy's Choir. Best was the Alto, who had great (even regal) poise and sang like an angel. In my opinion she's up there with the best of her western counterparts I have heard. Wunderbar!

I was rather taken aback by the Finale. It was taken at a speed significantly faster than I'd have liked (definitely not Langsam; and I am not even an advocate for ultra slow speed here) and even at the critical beginning it was not hushed enough. It was all symphonically geared towards the brassy climaxes. This was well played but not the Mahler I know; in fact I know of no performance or recording that sounds like this one. But I'd concede that this, one of the greatest Mahler movements, had always upended interpreters.

The orchestra had a hectic schedule for this tour (see the official blog here, in Chinese but with pics). On the 17th, they rehearsed for 10 hours back home. On the 18th, they flew to Guangzhou and rehearsed with the Choirs (the children's choir is local and different from this performance). On the 19th they performed in Guangzhou. On the 20th, they travelled to Shenzhen (less than 3 hours by bus) and gave this concert (surely with rehearsal with the Lily Choir). I am not sure whether they were heading for other nearby cities afterwards. Perhaps the hectic schedule and consecutive night performances took its toll.

In recent concerts, especially those in venues I rarely visit (like here and the Longgang), I wonder how much the hall contributes to the grainy sound (not only of the Ningbo, but also of the China National Opera). To be fair to the Ningbo, I streamed several of their concerts online and tried to determine their sound.

I watched on their official website the 2021 Second Viennese School Concert (Berg Violin Concerto; Schoenberg Five Pieces and Webern Pasagcalia). I also watched the 2020 Beethoven 8th (with excellent introduction of the piece and some players) conducted by the diminutive but very charming Chen Lin 陈琳, former student of Yu Feng and now vice-chair of the Conducting Dept in the Central Conservatory (bio). Both are good performances in virtual concerts, playing to an empty hall. I think I hear some of the deficiencies I heard in this concert. Dry strings and weak horns. I also streamed their excellent pre-pandemic 2019 Shoatakovich 5th under the redoubtable Zhang Gouyong 张国勇 (pupil of the great Gennadi Rozdhestventsky). Now, this was to a full hall and the orchestra sounded just fuller. The concerts I heard were half capacity and perhaps that had affected the sound. Lack of playing time together during the pandemic surely is a factor too. Something to really think about!

Despite their severely challenged production value, the videos manage to show a very young orchestra working hard. All in all, I'd love to hear this orchestra again, under better circumstances. And I sure would like to hear Chen Lin live one day!

I cannot help to air my feeling about mobilizing such big forces during the pandemic. Tours are all about garnishing prestige, especially for second-tier orchestras. Everybody (including the HKPO) does it, and when back home reports are always full of hyperboles lauding the success. I am sure Maestro Yu has a lot of pull in China, but I do feel perhaps he could have done it without such extravagance by selecting a showpiece that does not require soloist and double choirs. One has to use privilege carefully. Shenzhen has a superior orchestra that can deliver all of this without effort. In fact, the SZSO had performed this piece before under its former director Ehwald (my attendance chronicled here; wow, 10 years ago!). It made do with less resources, to even better effect.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am very enthusiastic about the state of the Chinese Orchestra. I follow them closely and root for them. In fact, I am planning on an article on all these interesting regional orchestras and under sung conductors. 

19 September, 2021

Shenzhen Symphony Mahler and Opera Excerpts

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony and Mahler

Sept 17, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Lin Daye 林大叶 - Shi Yijie 石倚洁
Opera Excerpts and Mahler 5

This was a first in my concert-going. I had never previously experienced a heavy-weight symphony that was preceded by unrelated opera excerpts (music and arias). Sometimes, a Mahler symphony would be preceded by a Mahler song cycle, and that is relevant. But Italian Opera? However, it tuned out just fine - a delight, actually. Better this than a gratuitous Mozart concerto.

The large orchestra was unusually seated in the European way - divided violins and lower strings distributed around the center. Concert opened with a sonorous Overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino (this opera is actually one of my favorite Verdi's because, despite the usual absurd plot, there is no drag and things unfold quickly, with the three leads singing non-stop). Then came Che gelida manina from Puccini's La Boheme. It was immediately apparent Tenor Shi Yijie (a bio here) has a secure and well honed voice, with good style and diction. He had won several major competitions and is quite well known for his largely Bel Canto performances. Then came La donna e mobile, from Verdi's Rigoletto, which of course brought down the house (even Chinese audience know this one; in secondary school in HK I actually sang it in its silly English version Over the Summer Sea). then, interestingly, the conductor and singer both exited the stage, and the orchestra launched into a sliver (with harp) of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite. All this to introduce the next piece, E la solita storia del pastore, a tenor staple that has survived the oblivion of  Cilea's L'arlesiana. Somewhat incongruently, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from Lehar's Das Land des Lachelns rounded off the program. The audience was enthusiastic and the appluase won an encore, O sole mio! My, that raised the roof! Good show and even I felt good. As I wrote in the last review of the National Opera, opera has a bright future in China.

However, in this acoustically superior hall, where one can hear everything loud and clear, deploying a Mahlerian orchestra for opera is questionable. The strings are probably twice the size of those usually in the pits. The soloist was no slouch but a somewhat reduced orchestra would have made some of his singing ride more effortlessly. Conductor Lin Daye, winner of the Sir Georg Solti conductor competition, had a fine grip. Stylistically the Italian material were fine but the Lehar needed a little more je ne sais quoi (most Lehar recordings fail too, unless the conductor is really into the idiom; listen to mono Lehar on Lehar and you'll know why).

And then we straddled into the completely alternate reality of Mahler Symphony No. 5. I often wonder why it is played much more often than any other of his purely instrumental symphonies - perhaps it is more easily understandable and its movements are not all unremittingly dark and embrace various moods, with an upbeat conclusion. However, its second and third movements are sprawling and difficult to cohere, and in my experience not many performances are satisfying. This performance was driven with a firm pulse and played dramatically, often rambunctiously, sometimes chaotically, but I call it a success, much better than the many uninspiring, even dispiriting, Mahler 5 I have heard in the past years, many with big names like Andris Nelsons/BSO and Marin Alsop/Baltimore (summarized, with links, here).

The Funeral march is the easiest movement. Here, it unfolded steadily and the trumpeter for once was never flustered. The strings, as throughout, showed their mettle, and their expressiveness was truly gratifying. The second movement was positively wild, stormy and vehement, as Mahler indicated. But it is a long movement, and this conductor's resolute drive did not have much yielding in tempo, so sometimes it seemed a little episodic, especially after successive apocalytic moments. The same holds true of the Scherzo, which had some wonderful playing by the strings, but a little more relaxation here and there would not be amiss. I have to say here I don't agree with the practice to have the horn soloist come up front for the few bits that he does. Our principal here seemed awkwardly poised and distracted, though he played well. The Adagietto was well played, but I'd much prefer it to be more hushed. The Rondo Finale was not the most playful, but it had drive and aimed at the finish, which was a success.

Texture was frequently a little coarse. At lower levels the strings were simply world-class in their expressivity, but at higher levels the tutti violins had some coarseness about them. As for the brass, they played very well but the sound is not that of the VPO or Concertgebouw. Most of this can likely be attributed to the lesser instruments that Chinese players use. China is not a country with a rich western music tradition nor a stash of older and affordable instruments but new luthiers and othe instrumental makers, as in other parts of the western world, are constantly gaining ground. Mind you, the musicians are paid little compared to world standard, and most have to earn more by private means, so it's unlikely they can afford more expensive instruments, which are even more expensive here than in the west.

The best are the woodwind players, which are simply world-class. Most of the principals have studied and played in Germany, and their solidity shows. As I have mentioned before, they play with a coherence and expressiveness that somehow elude the HKPO winds.

But the most impressive thing was that the whole team seemed hungry, and eager to make the most of things. China's crazy-strict covid policies cancelled most performances. Too bad because of a sporadic case in SZ I had to miss the SZSO with Li Xincao in Mahler 7th, a work I'd like to hear more than the 5th! Uh! BUT, this performance revealed to me that the musicians, from conductor down, are an enthusiastic bunch. I actually don't understand many Mahler performances today - the foremost thing is to galvanize and just give! Yes, calculated agogic changes are important but they would be futile if the musicians are not fired up in general (as in the 2 aforementioned performances I cited above). Better over-heated than under-toned. Mahler was not a perfect composer, and he knew it. For the 5th, he revised at a frenzy since its premiere because he was adjusting the sound palette. Conductors have to adjust too, and it's a tough job.

As western music is only a portion of the usual agenda of a Chinese symphonic orchestra, it cannot be an easy life. They have to play many roles, as functionaries for popular programs and state events beside their playing western music. Given that understanding, I am doubly impressed by their performances. In this concert, the musicians played their hearts out, and it was obvious.

Kudos! Mahler has a bright future in China

09 September, 2021

China National Opera Marriage of Figaro

Click pics to enlarge.

Opera Review: China National Opera - Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro

Sep 7, 2021, Shenzhen, Longgang Cultural Center Grand Theater 深圳龙岗文化中心大剧院
China National Opera 中央歌剧院 - Yang Yang, 杨洋 conductor
Figaro: Wang Yi Qing 王艺清; Susanna: Li Jing Jing 李晶晶
Count: Jin Chuan 金川; Countess: Zhang Jin Ge 张金鸽
Cherubino: Niu Sha Sha 牛莎莎
Bartolo: Chen Ye 陈野; Marzellina: Jin Jiu Jie 金久湝; Basilio: Li Xiang 李想

Unlike the Turandot last Friday, this is is billed as a Concert Version. I was surprised when I entered and found a reshaped, simply yet boldly adorned stage that collapsed the stage rear corners towards the center. The floor and back were laden with blown up scores, and the down-sized orchestra was fanned out on the right (see pic below). The Props, mostly a chair and 2 screens that were moved around, were a model of economy (much like Peking Opera) but proved well deployed. The pit was covered and the actions were further up front. Singers were dressed in mostly black and white (and off-white) and blended in with the stage.

From the first downbeat, I was pleasantly surprised by the nice sound of the orchestra. Strings were sweet and articulate and the woodwinds and horns played with excellent ensemble and verve, clearly energized. Conductor Yang Yang was proficient and perhaps a little more yielding than Yuan Ding on Friday. It was not quite the most idiomatic Mozart playing around - transitional passages occasionally sounded like sight-reading, but it was on a high and enjoyable level even for this veteran (I have watched this opera many times, including in English at the much lamented New York City Opera). Compared with Friday, one can conclude that the pit was highly detrimental to the sound. 
Of course it usually is, but an experienced conductor can counter this to some extent. It is also possible the reshaped stage basically constituted a horn that was beneficial to the transmission of sound. The orchestra actually played every night between Friday and Tuesday. In between were a concert of opera excerpts and some celebratory concerts for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps they were finally warmed up too.

Suffice to say, the semi-staging was more than satisfactory (better than a poor full staging). Kudos to the people who worked on the set and direction. The limited color palette and blown up pages reminded me of productions that ranged from a Queen of Spades (with blown-up poker cards) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's cinematic masterpiece, Parsifal (scores blowing around).

TWO big twists! The recitatives were delivered in Chinese (Mandarin vernacular)! And well done they were, as good as native drama actors. As you may not know, Chinese singers are severely disadvantaged by their mother tongue that is not a western language (same for Koreans and Japanese and whatever). With little foreign language in the usual curriculum, Asians have to work crazy hard to sing opera. Second, Mozart, in the form of an actor (see pics), appeared occasionally, sometimes during a lull, and gave brief synopsis of the highly confused proceedings. The audience lapped it up, and that is important. More, there were some arguably "cheap tricks", like the Count carrying an LV bag to woo Susanna, and Marzellina gifted Figaro the deed for an apartment 房产证!when she found out he was her son. My opinion is, this is an implausible comedy that can accommodate elements iconic (for the wrong reasons) in our current lives. The audience was certainly tickled.

Now to the singing. Just like the orchestral playing, it was not the ultimate, but it was on a high level. Diction was fair, no easy thing. The male singers of whatever register sounded more alike than different, which means that Figaro and the Count were not so far apart (it happens to even the legendary Fischer-Diskeau, who being very light for a baritone excelled nonetheless because of his non-pareil diction and characterization). Susanna and Countess were competent and more differentiated, and Marzellina was downright husky (not that I like that). My greatest disappointment had to be the trouser-role, Cherubino, who must stand out in this opera, just as Octavian must in Rosenkavalier. The singer was like a glob of vowels and I could not make out syllables - I value enunciation (which is why I am emphatically neither a fan of Joan Sutherland nor Kiri Te-Kanawa). My Italian may be rudimentary (basta!), but I know what the cadence should sound like.

There is another observation. The ensembles, and this is a meticulously composed ensemble opera, were tight, and highly enjoyable, not that much different from a night in the better of the West. When it came to the individual moments, be it the (what should be) time-arresting moments, like Porgi Amor, things fell a little short. Not expressive enough, but still moving. And so the ensemble effort eclipsed the individual, but that is not a bad thing. Again, I am positive the Chinese western opera scene has a very bright future ahead. In terms of offering western opera in foreign tongues to the Chinese population, I think this is a very good effort. In fact, I think it is a sterling effort. I'd be happy to see and hear more of this kind in the coming years. Kudos.

Onto my feelings now towards this opera. Masterpiece though it is, it is a set piece designed to a formula. After years of listening, it has become too predictable. For me, there is less excitement in it now than before. I have never been a comedy fan, and imho opera moves too slowly to be a good vehicle. Better the heavier operas with their more cosmic pretensions and heaven-storming angst. As always, I listen to the music (singers and, even more importantly, the orchestra) more than follow the plot.

There are numerous very good recordings of this opera. On LP I have the classic set conducted by Erich Kleiber, (Decca) perfect singing and playing, and sonically excellent to boot. Still one of the best.

05 September, 2021

Puccini Turandot Chinese National Opera

Opera Review: Turandot

Shenzhen, Longgang Cultural Center Grand Theater 深圳龙岗文化中心大剧院
China National Opera 中央歌剧院 - Yuan Ding, 袁丁 conductor
Turandot: Liu Yan Hong 刘艳红
Calaf: Li Shuang 李爽

Liu: Yao Hong 幺红
Timur: Tian Hao 田浩
Ping, Pang, Pong: Geng Zhe, Liu Yi Ran, Li Xiang 耿哲,刘怡然,李想

Where I live in Shenzhen, Longgang, is peripheral to the heavy-weight CBD districts of Futian and Nanshan. As a result, cultural events, at least those of more substantial (or foreign) import, are few and far in between (not that there are many to start with in this city without much of a past). This is not unlike anywhere else in the world, be it NYC or HK. Where I am would be Queens in NYC and Yuen Long in HK. There is no denying, the best arts come to the wealthiest. It may not be equitable, but arts increasingly need private funding. I am not even mentioning the issue of "high arts", as they are likely massively imperiled by an age where inequity and populist sentiments are high on the agenda. If one judges by popular votes, hip hop and K-Pop will enter the halls of fame, and Shakespeare and Beethoven will be nearly completely dismissed. Fortunately, the niche always exists, but aficionados will have to be content with a very small pocket.

So it was, and is, a rare event that the premiere Opera Company of China, the National Opera, visits our local venue. Originally scheduled for July, it was postponed due to a smattering of covid cases here. Scouring the net, I found out this is a tried-and-true production that had toured China extensively. It had also been scheduled in Italy this year but I don't think it had happened due to the pandemic.

When I learned that they were finally to come, tickets were sold out. Fewer tickets were available due to anti-covid practices (some seats blocked out). On the evening of performance, I went early to the entrance gate, where patrons were screened for their QR Health Codes. I had with me a sign: "Just 1 ticket wanted". No response. I pestered every person entering the gate for whether he or she had an unused ticket. After maybe 10 attempts, one lady said she had one. I was ecstatic and entered with her (and paid her) and the rest is history. Mind you , were this at the city center's Concert Hall, where I heard all of my favorite SZSO concerts, where tickets during covid times are registered with one's name; any transference of ticket will be hazardous, if not impossible (I had understood this in advance).

This marked the first time I had entered this venue. It is an old-styled "statement building", which is conjoined with the district's main library (which I frequent) and museum (which I occasionally visit; currently, it has an African Art exhibit). The linking elements used to house the Book City, which had been relocated to the newer cultural center, Mecanoo (designed by the Dutch firm), a stone-throw's away, and is now used as a covid-testing site.

Despite its highly absurd story (which, honestly, is a problem that plagues most operas), musically, Turandot is one of my favorite operas, certainly my favorite Puccini, even if the ending was completed by Alfano. Its portrayal of so-called "ancient China" caused it to be banned for decades in China. But now its fortunes is reversed. There is even a Peking Opera version of it; how's that for cultural re-appropriation! For myself, the depiction of "China", even the trio of Ping Pang Pong (who offer some humanistic counterpoint to Turandot's ruthlessness), is not the problem; it's the precipitous softening of the Princess in the third act that defies credulity. I am not the only one. The respectable Spectator even published an article calling it out: Turandot is a disgusting opera that is beyond redemption. I agree with most of the points except that, I do think, despite the problematic ending, musically it is the best of the composer. Also, as an Asian, I personally find Madama Butterfly even more disagreeable, and never listen to it (ditto the despicable musical Miss Saigon, which basically appropriated the Puccini opera. Perhaps one day someone will write "Miss Kabul" - I am serious, and betting on it).

theopera101 (you should read the link to know all about the opera) also takes side swipes at the opera:

"...Calaf: A prince, anonymous to everyone in the opera. Supposedly a great guy but does little to justify this reputation...Liu: A slave girl. Loves Calaf beyond all measure -- the feeling’s not mutual..."

"...As Liu falls dead Timur must be informed since he is blind, and he cries out in sadness. The crowd and he leave with the body of Liu. Calaf chastises Turandot for effectively slaughtering the heart and soul of the opera and then pulls her in and kisses her. (At this point Puccini finishes and Alfano takes over)..."

"...After the kiss Turandot is horrified but gradually she softens. She reveals that she has always (since Act I at least) both hated and loved the Prince. She tells him to leave, but he bravely reveals his name: “I am Calaf, son of Timur.” His life sits in her hands...Predictably but rather unbelievably - not to mention mawkishly - the couple approach the emperor and Turandot announces that she knows the Prince’s name and it is love. Everyone is happy and the opera ends to the tune of "Nessun Dorma"..."

Cannot agree more. And so, the third and final act is rather difficult to watch, despite the magnificence of the music. It cannot be easy on the cast either. Most singers are basically "statuesque" and terrible actors, but the soprano singing Turandot is further burdened by the impossible task of acting out a radical change of personality in a very short time. Hence, in every production, the soprano singing Liu would steal applause.

Musically, things were on a high level. Hong Kong Opera cannot begin to compare. The singing was fine across the board, and that includes the very important chorus (though they are too few in number on this small stage, and so less impactful than usual). Liu Yan Hong (Turandot), a young singer on the ascent, possesses a voice capable of literally beaming out on demand. The veteran Yao Hong (Liu), also administratively second-in-command at the CNO, sang expressively, though her voice was at times unsteady, even decidedly floppy at first entry. Veteran bass Tian Hao (Timur) had been at this a long time and his timber was lovely. The ensemble act of Ping, Pang and Pong was solidly dependable.

Li Shuang (Calaf) had the lion's share of the limelight. His singing was not quite helden, but of good tonal allure, dependable and fairly idiomatic. However, the Nessun Dorma should have had a little more lingering to bring out the drama. This may partly be due to the conductor, Yuan Ding, who, though proficient, throughout showed not much elasticity.

The orchestra played very well. The woodwinds were the standouts. Strings seemed not full enough. The brass were overly powerful, often somewhat coarse, even grating. The conductor may be partly to blame but I think he was not the real culprit. It's the hall. The size is on the small side but that is not the problem. Rather, it is the acoustics - a very dry sound, and that is definitely not friendly to the orchestra or singers. The walls are pretty bare, with almost no adornment, and seem to be plastered. The lack of Hall Sound diminishes the grandeur of the music, especially the resplendent scoring of the final pages. It certainly didn't help with the Nessun Dorma. Acoustically, wood-laden Shenzhen Concert Hall is markedly superior.

Production values were good. The sets were impressive, though squeezed on the smallish stage. Lighting was fine. Stage direction was alright, and in my opinion no direction can be successful for the final act.

This was an all-Chinese production of one of the more difficult operas to mount. Judged by the performance in all respects China has a very bright future in Opera.

As for this opera, despite the lure of stage opulence, it makes as much sense to just listen to it than watch it. The orchestral scoring is full of riches. I recommend the glorious Decca version conducted by Mehta (resplendent sonics characteristic of Decca opera productions). It has a galaxy of stars that one cannot hope to encounter in the opera house today (and I am not even usually a fan of Pavarotti and Sutherland). My LP set (London) is one of the very few in my modest opera collection that I still pull out and play from time to time (others are Magic Flute, Tristan, Ring and, surprise! Flying Dutchman). In fact, just last year, before I departed for HK, I played the last side. On a good audio setup, it always gives great pleasure. For those who can tolerate old sonics, the legendary 1937 Covent Garden live excerpts conducted by Barbirolli, with Eva Turner and Giovanni Martinelli (EMI), is a MUST. A hair raising performance that has never been surpassed and English Eva Turner, more than the formidable Birgit Nilsson and others, has always been regarded as the greatest Turandot ever.

30 July, 2021

Shenzhen Symphony Strauss Lin Daye

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony - All Strauss

July 16, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony - Lin Daye - Jin Zhenhong - Nie Jiapeng
All Strauss

China is so strict about Covid protocols that they cancel most concerts even after a signle case or two had triggered massive testing but have receded in the city more than a month ago. Sigh, I was looking forward to the same orchestra's Mahler 7th conducted by Li Xincao but it was cancelled. It is a miracle this one happened at all. There are fewer concerts here than in neighboring Hong Kong, and I am resigned.

BUT, this one was a great surprise! Principal Conductor Lin Daye 林大葉 is a known entity who has been around a while but I have never heard him. Concert opened with a crackling Don Juan and it was immediately apparent that the orchestra played much better than in the last concert that I heard (Franck conducted by Ang, blog post below). The orchestra produced an opulent sound (great strings) but it was the sectional excellence that was so gratifying. The Principal Winds and Brass played with immense character and warmth, as they have done on the best occasions in the past. The valedictory playing continued onto an utterly delightful Till Eulenspiegels. It was more than obvious that the players enjoyed themselves; all the players were swaying, as a good European orchestra does. Credit to the conductor, who not only provided a firm rhythmic foundation and kept tension and drama alive, but knew how to relax when necessary. Strauss' tone poems demand quick shifts of mood, and they were duly fulfilled here.

The temperature dropped more than a notch in the second half. Young cellist Nie Jiapeng 聶佳鵬 and Principal Violist Jin Zhenghong 金朕纮 were the soloists in Don Quixote. There are many tender, lyrical and sheerly ravishing moments in this score and they were fully conveyed. On the other hand, the many cacophonous outbursts were scaled down just enough for one to feel wanting, even if they were perfectly played. I am sure the approach was to accommodate the playing of the solo cellist. Although he played with refinement and color, his tone was just too small for the piece. I regret they did not let the cello principal Karen Kocharyan take the limelight - he is an excellent cellist who shines in his solo's (like Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2) - especially since the Viola part was taken by the excellent orchestral principal.

All in all, a wonderful Strauss concert, which is not easy to come by. As one from HK who has gone through the Edo de Waart period, I still remember what he said, that Strauss is the ultimate test for an orchestra. If so, EdW, whom I regard as a kapellemesiter (in its journeyman sentiment) has failed and this performance is several notches above whatever Strauss that I have heard with the HKPO.

06 May, 2021

Shenzhen Symphony Darrell Ang HKPO Zee Zee Koncz

Concert Review (21-1): Shenzhen Symphony/Darrell Ang HKPO/Koncz/Zee Zee

April 30, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra/Darrell Ang
Shi - Bruch - Franck

My, my first concert in over a year!

Concert opened with a weirdly named Inside and Outside of the Light Cones 光锥内外, a Concerto for Suona (a double reed) by Shi Fuhong 史付红. It made use of suona of various sizes (kind of like the sax family; the larger the lower the reach). The piece was well crafted and performed by Zhang Wei Wei 张维维.

It was apparent from the opening of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 that the winds and brass were too upfront for the strings and they remained so for the rest of the piece. Thus, some crucial atmosphere was lost (I think of the opening in Kyung Wha Chung's Decca recording, wonderfully conducted by Rudolf Kempe). But what bothered me more was the soloist, Wu Qian 吴倩, who was reasonably secure but played without much subtlety in dynamics and phrasing. It was just plain bland.

The orchestra came out charging in Franck's Symphony. But again, the brass and winds were just a little too prominent. This can be partly attributed to my seat, which is directly above the first violins. This piece, with its repetitive elements, is not an easy piece to play well as it requires much delicate balance and chording. As I am familiar with the sound of this orchestra from this seat, I had to conclude that ensemble hasn't returned to pre-pandemic standards, and some coarseness came through. I say this despite having been away for 3 years, during which they changed director, because most of the principals are still there, and the roster hasn't changed that much.

Singaporean Darrell Ang is generally well regarded (regularly conducts in Russia, where he had studied) and currently director of the Sichuan Philharmonic. Perhaps it was not the best chemistry? I am not sure whether he was pleased with the result, as he only acknowledged the cor anglais and harp soloists at the end, with no nod to the individual sections. Attendance was low though, and he may not have wanted to drag out the applause.

Shenzhen Symphony is a favorite of mine, an orchestra that I think is better than the HKPO. I shall continue to root for them, even if the pandemic means I won't get to hear the many Russian and Eastern European musicians they used to get (including the great Elizabeth Leonskaja). In a month I shall be listening to them in Mahler 7, conducted by Li Xincao, a conductor who impressed me many years ago in his guest appearance with the HKPO (if I remember correctly, it was Beethoven 7th; now he is director of China National Orchestra).

On China's Bilibili, which carries a lot of videos, many originating from Youtube (not operational in China), there is a video of Daniele Gatti, who fell from grace at the Concertgebouw due to sexual harassment, conducting the Shenzhen Symphony in Brahms (very good). And guess who is co-concertmaster of the Shenzhen Symphony these days? William Preucil, who fell in Cleveland for similar reasons. Now, is the West too Woke and China not Woke enough? :-)


May 5, 2021, Hong Kong Cultural Center
HKPO/Koncz/Zee Zee

I wish I were able to attend this concert. The following brief report (over wechat) is from my good friend shidi. Christoph Koncz is a rising Austrian conductor, and Zee Zee a rising Chinese pianist whose real name is Zuo Zhang 左章. I recently streamed her DG albums with her Z.E.N. Piano Trio (formidable line up; E for Esther Yoo and N for Narek Nakhazaryan, all superb soloists in their own right) and was mightily impressed by the pianism.

"... (in Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1) She is a great pianist...really solid playing with beautiful tone from the HKCC Steinway, which says a lot about her technical ability. I am glad that l have secured the piano side seats of her 17 May recital prior to the concert tonight...

(in Brahms Symphony No. 1) Excellent. Conductor managed to change the sound of HKPO, particularly the strings, which yielded a silky and smooth tone, away from Jaap's typical pushy and heavy approach. That speaks for this conductor's talent; he is principal violin of VPO. He seated the orchestra with divided violins, bass to the right and cello in the centre, to very good effect. He delivered clear and abundant low level harmonics. It is a pity that l sat in the stalls rather than my usual balcony spot, where the sound would have been even better! All in all an excellent delivery, with a very engaged orchestra, the strings sounding delightfully European, and brass section (French horns in particular) sounding sweet and beautiful. Most would agree that this has been a very enjoyable Brahms performance!..."

In 2 weeks Shidi would go to hear her in a solo recital. I shall hear the same program in SZ 3 weeks after the HK recital. No doubt the lag is due to quarantine. It will be great to compare notes later.

03 August, 2020

Elim Chan Scheherazade Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

Following Elim Chan
Streaming Classical Music (1): Full Concert Pieces in HD, Scheherazade, Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5

Elim Chan Conductor Elim Chan's meteoric rise to stardom is amazing. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she became a music professional almost by accident (see The Guardian Interview). After she won the 2014 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, she apprenticed as Assistant Conductor of the LSO. She is now Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, two very good orchestras. "Be the Conductor of Your Own Life" is her motto.

Since my good fortune of having heard her in Hong Kong in 2017 (here), I have become a fan. Imagine my delight when I found on youtube two (HD 1080p) full performances of warhorses, recorded in one f the world's greatest halls, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. I sat transfixed watching them and so am relaying these to you here. Note that despite being in the same hall, the two orchestras sound quite different. I am going to do more of this in a new series, as titled above.

Rimsky Korsakov Scheherazade This is one of the top warhorses, and beloved by audience and musicians, for good reason. It is approachable even to a layman, and we tend to foget it really is a masterpiece. NPR here has conductor Marin Alsop introduce this piece. For even more info, see the wiki entry.

Tcahkovsky Symphony No. 5 Tchaikovsky is such a great composer that everyone knows a few melodies of his. Most people who are not into classical music do no know the tumultuous part of his life, as reflected in his Symphonies No. 4 to 6. In these pieces, the dark currents shall surprise those who think of his ballets. I'll let WQXR introduce the great Symphony No. 5.

If you have never heard these pieces but enjoyed the videos, drop me a word!

21 June, 2020

NCPA Spring Season 20 and thereafter

Reported by Vivek R.

Concert 1: February 16th: An evening of second movements

Augustin Dumay, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano
Mozart: Concertone for two violins in C major, K. 190
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op. 37

The Spring season opened with Mozart, which was a bit underwhelming - played and conducted by Dumay with Jane Cho as the other soloist. While Dumay’s violin was well projected, one could not clearly hear the notes from G and D Strings of Cho. The strings also seemed a bit recessed while the winds popped out a bit too much. The second movement was the best amongst the three.

Then came the Beethoven 4th. Forget the odd and even symphonies arguments, I love the gentleness of the 4th - as long as it is not over-interpreted, it to me, plays itself. The music I have on CD is with Walter and Vanska and I enjoy both - as I did the straight ahead interpretation of the day. If I could ask for something more, it would be more of a chamber feel to it bringing out more textures - like how Rizzi did it with Beethoven’s 5th a few years ago in Mumbai. The second movement was a standout one. The orchestra also seemed to have warmed up a bit - the winds did over project a couple of times, and I was not a fan of having the trumpets in a separate row by itself - the sound pops out separately. Overall very enjoyable.

Post intermission the great Pires took to stage. I think Mumbai guessed something special was coming as a loud cough (I will recognise you in a line up buddy, I was next to you) greeted her first notes. The version I know best is Pollini/Abbado but Pires made everything sweeter and more tender. Like the cadenzas and arpeggios in the first movement.

And what a fantastic second movement - the beauty of this was it was made to sound like a Sonata (borrowing from the chamber music example of earlier).

By the time the third movement came the sound had settled down so much. Rich strings. Well behaved winds. And Pires making gorgeous music. Splendid!

Concert 2: February 18, Pires and Dumay: It takes time for the concert hall to warm up!

Schumann Romance
Beethoven Violin Sonata 1
Schubert Violin Sonata 2
Beethoven Violin Sonata 5 (Spring).

Do halls warm up like an audio system? At the start of the concert, Dumay seemed to be in finer fettle than Pires - however, I saw the magic happening at the second movement (is that just me? can't be!) of Beethoven Violin Sonata 1 (I must say I prefer the late Mozart to early Beethoven by a stretch). Suddenly the body started responding.

And then came the second half was Schubert's A minor Sonata (should Schubert be heard only in a minor key?*). Absolutely brilliant. Starting with the "soft piano, aggressive violin opening" and ending with the Allegro where the piano and violin literally hurl at each other.

What can I say about this Beethoven's 5th sonata? Firstly, an older Beethoven is so much better with all the harmonic richness making a strong appearance. I listened mostly with my eyes closed and when I opened it, I was actually surprised to see other people and musicians on stage - I had been transported! The absolute freshness of the first movement with the wonderful interplay between the instruments, the poignant second movement, the third movement (an afterthought?), COUGH COUGH COUGH (breaking previous records) and the sweet Rondo that closed it off. The chemistry between the musicians was just spot on.

I would go again, even if they played the second half alone! If they even played the Beethoven alone!

*The answer is no. I mean just listen to this opening movement, and the recording quality does not seem to matter. Also that old school style of playing where they slide into a note - wow!

February 28th: Collard and the magic of Chopin

While the world had to contend with virus and a meltdown, we were treated to a great recital by Jean Philippe Collard.

Started off with Chopin's preludes. Beautifully played with excellent dynamic shading, and great technique. If I were to nit pick, I only wish that the tempos were not so uniform through the pieces...for example, in Chopin Prelude No. 7 (1 minute plus of pure loveliness), I like to be lifted up, paused, before the final notes come. However, it was great playing, individual preferences aside.

The second half seem to play to his strengths even more. Started with Faure's Ballade, and finished with a collection from Granados Op 11 (Goyescas). The dance like stead rhythms, I feel, suited Collard's playing so much, and it was better than the versions that I have heard. Spectacular! (And who does not like Besame Mucho's inspiration!).

"Quejas, o la Maja y el Ruiseñor" Inspiration for Besame Mucho

March 1st: Fireworks are an appropriate end

Saint Saens Omphale's spinning Wheel
Saint Saens Piano Concerto 5 (Collard)
Franck Symphony in D.
Conducted by Laurent Petitgirard

This was a special concert. Texture was back with the orchestra and how!

Starting off was Omphale's spinning wheel, a piece I have not heard before. What was indeed very impressive was the conducting - very nuanced. I enjoyed the piece, though I was hoping it was Dvorak's Golden Spinning Wheel instead (now that is the kind of macabre symphonic poem that gets me going - and this one even with an "all is well that ends well").

The Saint Saens piano concerto was par excellence. So beautifully played by the orchestra and Collard - with its melodious first movement featuring runs on the keyboard, and very eastern sounding ("play piano like an Egyptian?") and filigreed second movement and the hurrah finish of the final movement - all were executed brilliantly! The strings in the second movement never did sound more silkier or precise.

The second half featured Franck. This is a piece I have never connected with emotionally - always feel wowed by the body of sound and so many instruments! This day too, was the same, but how magnificently it was played and conducted. The climaxes were all so well sorted and came together with adequate gusto and the brass section was in good form too. Overall extremely well played, and for me, enjoyable the way I enjoy Franck (like an audiophile, to be honest).

I do wish Laurent Petitgirard and Collard would come back to Bombay again.

March 11 - Not the NCPA season, but from the mouth of the babes..

I went to perhaps the last concert for a while - alas the virus has shut down concert halls. This was with Savitri Grier on the violin and Tom Poster on the piano. The concert was special although one cannot talk of it in ethereal terms. It started off with Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 3 followed by the familiar jewel Brahms Sonata 1. Though I am not so needing of a heart on sleeve approach, I wish the violinist played with a little more emotion. I felt she played very well, but more like an young person - all precision, little less emotion (the type that comes out of age). The pianist was great in that regard though the piano sounded a bit loud at times.

Post interval was Messiaen’s theme and variations which wasso all over the place that I enjoyed it after the orderly romanticism of early pieces. This was followed by Faure’s Sonata 1 - played very well. The encore was the slow movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata and played so well.

The charm of the two young people and their chemistry made it a very enjoyable concert. They also spoke about the pieces (why is it not done in regular concerts - sometimes the stiffness of classical concerts is stifling. It is meant to entertain too), and a fitting end (temporarily) to the concert season.

27 February, 2020

Two Mahler Fifth's

How would you like your Mahler 5th?

Even if Mahler's Universe is intrinsically huge, the varied instruments through which we gaze at it swell its size even more. Some attempt (rather improbably) to look at the big picture; others try to excavate the minutest details. Despite the detailed instructions in the scores, readings can sound astonishingly different. Among the canon, the 5th has always been the most problematic, being emotionally more ambiguous (or bipolar) than most others. That doesn't stop it from being the most performed. Here are two performances on consecutive days, presented in chronological order.

February 24, 2020, Geffen Hall
Budapest Festival Orchestra - Ivan Fischer - Gerhild Romberger
All Mahler

I adore the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer and try to hear them as often as I can. The NYC audience love them too and they are yearly staples at Lincoln Center's Great Performers series (in the lousy Geffen Hall). The day before this concert, they played an all-Dvorak program that I wish I could have attended.

German Contralto Gerhild Romberger gave as perfect and sensitive a rendition of Kindertotenlieder as I have heard (on records), ecstatically received by the audience. It shows in these exquisite works, the proper inflection and diction are vitally important (even if you don't know the language, you feel it), an advantage for one native to the language - this is not to disparage her equipment, which is mighty fine, well spun on top and with just enough weight on the bottom, a rarity in contraltos.

Even though I am familiar with this orchestra in concert and on record, I was still astonished by the bigness of this performance of the Fifth Symphony. And it was not at all about punch, or delivering vital blows to impress (like what the CSO does for Solti), rather unabashed sensuality, physicality, even carnality. This would not have been possible were it not for the orchestral sensitivity and virtuosity on offer. Ivan Fischer had gone on record saying that he regards this symphony as Mahler's most Jewish, and perhaps those aspects of the performance reflect that belief.

The way the orchestra was placed and balanced (rather European) is central to its sound. Divided violins, cellos and violas in the center, and (unusually) double basses in the center back, on elevated platforms (the result was excellent, attesting to the ears of the conductor; perhaps the NY Phil should emulate). The sound can be definitely characterized as European, with a dark and solid bass foundation. Winds, brass, and strings were on equal footing - not easily achievable, as really strong and characterful wind players are needed to counter the rest of the orchestra.

As mentioned numerous times before in other reviews, Ivan Fischer has the ability of to bring out many details without hindering forward motion. This is generally true, but here and there I did think I'd have preferred a more straightforward propulsion - the constant "assault" of highlighted details can be tiring to hold on to - the listener has to have as much concentration as the musicians in order to receive what is given. The powerful orchestral sound projection also meant the divided violins, even when they were carrying the tune, were sometimes not as audible as I would like.

For further discussion, I'd like to refer you to the newyorkclassicalreview account of the same concert. I frequently read and cite this site, because the New York Times now has fewer reviews (and limits online free-browsing). Another is, I like to cross-check my views with others and align myself to reading reviews of concerts that I could not attend (like the Dvorak). In general, I have been in agreement with most of the reviews (and comments) of this site, but this time I have some reservations, though I am not at complete odds with the author's views.

Not that I think this was the ultimate performance of the piece. What is! In my following review of the Juilliard Orchestra, I shall detail the numerous disappointments of the performances of this piece that I have heard. Like that reviewer, I was not really carried away by this performance, and had some of the same reservations. However, I do think this performance showed me what I'd like to get more from this piece in performance. To me, this was one of the most illuminating performances of a Mahler symphony that I have heard, and it made me listen hard, not something an ordinary performance can do.

As I was leaving, I overheard someone say: "That was a lot of sound!" That described it well. Unfortunately, a lot of sound just made the lousy Geffen Hall stand out more for its failures. Would that it had taken place in Carnegie Hall!

February 25, 2020, Carnegie Hall
Juilliard Orchestra - David Robertson
Mackey - Mahler

I hesitated to attend this concert after the tumultuous performance of Mahler's 5th by the Budapest Festival Orchestra just a night ago, but curiosity got the better of me. So, how did the student orchestra compare? Not very well, I am afraid.

In contrast to the BFO, the performance of Mahler 5th by the Juilliard Orchestra was more commonplace. This was the first time I heard David Roberston. A little awkward and angular in his movements, he did seem attuned to the score. Surprisingly, the orchestra was seated also in the European way, differing from the BFO in that the double basses were behind the cellos, not in the center.

Sonically, this was a completely different orchestra. Despite the superiority of the acoustics, weaknesses were immediately apparent. Best were the lower brass, including a fearless trumpet (this fellow is destined for stardom!) The horns were tidy but a little characterless. The winds did not gel too well and lacked character and gravitas. The divided upper strings also struggled to be heard. But the most glaring fault to me was a lack of bass line. The cellos, with or without augmentation from the basses, simply lacked power. And so it became a lower brass dominated performance. The trajectory was clear enough, but the execution made it a humdrum performance.

Concert opened with Steven Mackey's Beautiful Passing, a violin concerto, well played by Stephen Kim. Written in an accessible style, it mixed minimalism with some surprising elements (I heard some Vaughn Willaims). Of course, there were lots of percussion, and all players did well.

As I have mentioned at the top, M5 is, for me, difficult to bring off. This blog has few entries, recording only concerts that I have gone to in NYC or Hong Kong. I don't attend concerts that often (grant you, only for big pieces, like Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss), so it amazes me that this concert marked the TENTH (!) M5 I have heard since 2008 (inception of this blog). Too many M5, not enough of the others.

And I have heard the JO play the M5 twice before. Conlon (2008) was lackluster; DePreist (2011) was better but still routine (What is it with the JO? M5 as a test drive?) Lest one thinks better results are guaranteed with professional orchestras, that is simply not so either - witness Baltimore/Alsop (2016)HKPO/Sinaisky (2014), and Boston/Andris Nelsons (2018). Better, but still not memorable, was the recent Cleveland/Wesler-Most (2019). Two of the best M5's that I have heard are: NYPhil/Alan Gilbert (2011); and, amazingly, from a student orchestra, Asian Youth Orchestra/James Judd (2010).

And, lest one thinks the JO cannot play Mahler, that is not so either, witness Gilbert Mahler 9 (2011) and Roberto Abbado's Mahler 1st (2008) that I did not get to write about.

31 January, 2020

Simone Young Alban Gerhardt

Simone Young Encore!

January 31, 2020, Geffen Hall
NY Phil - Simone Young - Alban Gerhardt
Britten - Dean - Elgar

Viva Simone Young, who now is a favorite of mine! After her cataclysmal Mahler 6th with the NY Phil (here) last year, I was an instant convert. This program is not one I'd go for usually, but I'd go hear Simone Young conduct anything! This was an early concert (11:00 am), which suits me well, but there were a lot of empty seats.

Britten's Four Sea Interludes has never done that much for me, but Simone Young paced it well and elicited excellent playing from the orchestra and for once I enjoyed the orchestral colors.

This was followed by Australian Brett Dean's Cello Concerto, played by the excellent German Cellist Alban Gerhardt (website), who is familiar to me and the Hong Kong audience (my experience with the AYO concerts here), but this was his NY debut. The enjoyable concerto, for lack of a better word, features sort of long chant-like utterances from the soloist, unusually without too much pyrotechnical display. The orchestration is highly accessible, and the audience seemed to really like it. Gerhardt gave the premiere and it was obvious he knew it well. I personally enjoyed the Hammond Organ, kinda funky.

Although I am crazy about his two symphonies and many of the tone poems, somehow Elgar's Enigma Variations, despite the famous Nimrod, eludes me most of the time. Part of it is my own intrinsic reservation about the style of Orchestral Variations (Brahms, Hindemith, etc), so different from the sonata form. But in this performance, Simone Young paced it beautifully and got things moving, and nothing got bogged down. In Nimrod, the NY violins was still not the sweetest, but otherwise the orchestra played beautifully. The last three variations were quite eloquent and, credit to Young, there was only one climax, and it was very well done.

One thing about Simone Young. The orchestra sounded musical under her baton, whereas under the likes of Jaap or Daniel Harding (post below) it could be overdriven and coarse. This lady knows exactly what she is doing - superb control, just the right amount.

As I have said, I'd go hear her do anything!

13 January, 2020

Paul Lewis Daniel Harding Parker Quartet Andrew McGill New York Baroque Inc

The Biggest and the Smallest Bands: 3 Concerts

Click pics to enlarge.

Big comes at a cost, in this case literally, as I had to pay for my NYPO ticket, whereas the other were free concerts given during the holiday season. In this case, it is definitely not "you gets what you pays for".

Jan 10, 2020
New York Philharmonic - Paul Lewis - Daniel Harding
Grieg - Strauss

I am familiar with both artists' work on record. In the case of Daniel Harding, I heard him last in Strauss almost a year ago in a magnificent Ein Heldenleben with the Concertgebouw (here), so I was really looking forward to the even bigger Alpine Symphony. The stage was jam packed, and I was expectant. Alas, the woodwinds played tentatively, and the big Sunrise was just brute and piecing in sound. After that, the orchestra was not very cohesive nor alluring during the ascent. Things started to get much better around and after the Summit, which was powerful. The descent led to some foreboding, a fierce storm and then a calmer summing up. I managed to enjoy the second half of the piece, but the orchestral sound and acoustics of the Geffen Hall were not a patch on the Concertgebouw in Carnegie Hall, so perhaps it was not Harding's fault. Maybe a 2:00 pm concert is too early for the NYPO players to wake up!

Paul Lewis played distinctively in Grieg's Piano Concerto, and the orchestral contribution was very good. To me, the pianist's refinement and rhythmic emphasis sounded somewhat idiosyncratic, but not uncomfortably so. The performance was definitely not in the romantic tradition, but was dramatic. From my third tier seat I found the piano sound to be bass shy, and although I found it enjoyable I cannot be as ecstatic as another review (here).

Jan 6, 2020
Advent Lutheran Church
Parker Quartet and Anthony McGill
Salonen - Shostakovich - Mozart

I was very happy when I found out the Parker Quartet was giving a free concert! I heard them in 2011 (here) in another free concert in Flushing and was mightily impressed (it shocks me that it was almost a decade ago, as it just seemed like yesterday, sigh, how time flies!).

The Advent Lutheran is a nice church, but not very big. However, it has a substantial music program, Music Mondays, which I didn't know about until I read about the event in the NYT. On this occasion, due to the publicity (and perhaps the star attraction of the guest soloist), people had to be turned away in order not to violate the fire code. I was lucky I got there a little early.

As is usual with the Parker, there is a substantial piece of new music, Salonen's Homunculus (the word means little man, for what that is worth). It was well crafted and well played, but not quite as challenging as some of his larger works, like the violin concerto (I heard the DG version, played by Leila Josefowicz). It sounded really nice in the church though, and happily there was no undue reverberation.

Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9 is a masterpiece and part of the trilogy that is No. 7-9. This is much less played than No. 8 and undeservedly so. The Parker was thoroughly idiomatic and probing, equally captivating in quieter passages and the motoric finale.

After the intermission came Mozart's Clarinet Quintet with New York Philharmonic's Principal Andrew McGill, who played very beautifully. He was ably supported by the Parker, but overall the rendition did not quite have the "time stood still" feeling that the best performances can imbue in us. Nonetheless, the concert was admirable, and the reception afterwards, where we enjoyed a glass of red wine, certainly was a plus! I shall be attending more events!

December 18, 2020
Angel Orensanz Foundation
New York Baroque Inc.
All Bach

NYC is amazing! I have never heard of the venue nor the Band, but learnt of the free event from the NYT. I was very happy to get to hear Bach orchestral works in a church!

The Angel Orensanz Foundation is an Arts Organization that rents out its space, a former Synagogue, for events. The New York Baroque, Inc apparently is an established period-instrument band.

On this occasion, the conductor was the estimable Richard Edgarr, director of the Academy of Ancient Music. Before each piece, he gave a little speech which invariably illuminated the piece. More musicians should do this.

Orchestral Suites 1 and 3, and Brandenburg Concertos 6 and 5 were played. The orchestra was certainly not perfect, but the spirited playing and earthy sonorities of the period instruments were absolutely delightful. Highlights included the mesmerizing interplay by the 2 violas in the Concerto No. 6, and of course, the racuous Gigue of the Suite No. 3 (not to mention the heavenly Air)!

Great concerts in unusual spaces!

24 November, 2019

Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal - Yannick Nezet Sequin - Joyce Didonato

November 22, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal - Nezet Sequin - Didonato
Mozart - Bruckner

As I love the Montreal Symphony Orchestra I had high hopes for this "second" orchestra of the city, especially since their playing in the Bruckner cycle on ATMA was of a high order. I was not disappointed.

Mozart often opens for Bruckner, but this time it with a twist. First came the Overture to La Clemenza di Tito. The playing of the orchestra was absolutely delightful, lithe and alert, and Nezet-Sequin showed his expertise in tone painting, even in small details. Then came two arias, "Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio" and "Non piu di fiori". Although DiDonato barely was able to dip into the lowest part of the latter, in general they were very well sung. But, as with many American singers, her diction was not the clearest and, more importantly, I remain strangely unmoved by her characterization. And so, I enjoyed them rather less than her French program last year with the Philadelphia (here) and in German Opera in 2011 (here). Part of this may be due to the opera itself, which I enjoy less than, say, Figaro. This was proven when as an encore she sang Cherubino's "Voi che sapete", which I enjoyed more.

My fingers were crossed before the Bruckner 4th began. Nezet-Sequin is ubiquitously present in NY, but up to now I almost always missed something when he conducted big works. He is a Bruckner veteran, and his Bruckner cycle on ATMA has an equal number of admirers and detractors (count me in both camps). It's amazing that this marked the third time I have heard him conduct Bruckner. The Bruckner 7th earlier this year with the MET Orchestra (here) and the 9th in 2014 with the Philadelphia (here) both left me somewhat unsatisfied.

But this time around, with a fine orchestra that has been his own for the longest time, things were definitely different. Overall, the conducting was patient and the architecture very well maintained. Some of his ways with Bruckner were similar to previous outings. In the first movement, he overdrives sometimes and the climaxes are equally loud. Also, the way he moulds his strings is towards the legato side, seamless, which, though beautiful, doesn't always suit Bruckner. The second movement could have used a little more mystery, if not spirituality. The scherzo was well done. Most satisfyingly, however, was that the finale was well built up and all of one piece.

The seating was a little unusual. Divided violins, lower strings in the center. The double basses were in the last row center, flanked by horns to the left and the rest of the brass to the right (quite a hole between them and the strings on the right. The sound was perhaps a little "French", lighter than usual, especially the brass. Though the lower brass sound could have used more heft, commendably the horns were awesome and unfaltering, The finest concert I have heard Yannick done.

The same program 2 days earlier in Chicago.

15 November, 2019

Mahler Wesler-Most Shostakovich Petrenko Buchbinder

November 9, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - Vasily Petrenko - Rudolph Buchbinder
Weber - Mozart - Shostakovich

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra visits Carnegie Hall annually and gives 2-3 grueling concerts on consecutive days, a testament to their stamina. On this occasion, the previous night was conducted by director Mariss Jansons, who became unwell. Vasily Petrenko, who happened to be in town for the Met's Queen of Spades, became a last-minute substitute. And that was my fortune. Not only is Petrenko a Shostakovich expert (his Naxos series is one of the best), I have liked his conducting on a date with the Oslo in HK before (here).

Before the big piece, Petrenko showed his ware even in the first half. Weber's Euryanthe was well organized. Then came Mozart's Paino Concerto No. 23, the accompaniment of which was fluent. Rudolf Buchbinder was an unusual soloist, displaying legato playing of the first rank and staying shy of banging it out in big moments. Part of this may be due to his reduced dynamics (due to age), but his experience and ways were compelling. The audience was thrilled and rewarded with an encore of Strauss waltz.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, minus an occasional glitch, was played with the utmost attention to detail and overall architecture. This was a patient reading that brought out all the unease and suspense, and enigma, of the piece, that at the same time avoided gilding the lily in the big moments. Ensemble was tight and never flashy. A great performance.

The orchestra is imho one of the world's best. In the first half, the winds were irreproachable, though they became slightly more cautious in the second half and I sometimes miss some savagery. But with Peternko coming in only on that day, this was a miraculous moment.

Here is a good review of this concert, and here is one for the day before, when Jansons became ill (read the comments too; curiously, this site, which reviews all concerts did not have one for this one).

October 4, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Cleveland Orchestra - Franz Wesler-Most - Yefim Bronfman
Widmann - Mahler

I was not expecting much going into the concert, having been lukewarm to Franz Wesler-Most's recorded works, but was genuinely surprised.

Although the ubiquitous Yefim Bronfman has never been a personal fave, the Jorg Widmann work for piano, Trauermarsch, inspired by the Mahler on the same program, was quite enticing, and sonically resplendent. I enjoyed it, but the relationship with the Mahler proved elusive to me.

The Mahler 5th was tightly argued and, of course, fastidiously played by the Clevelander's. It was a non-sentimental approach but one that was not dispassionate (unacceptable in Mahler), rather wide-eyed and a just a little weary. It was cogent and much better than the more recent 5ths I have heard (including BSO/Nelsons and BSO/Alsop). It was fluent, detailed and did not sound forced, but one struggles for descriptive words. An excellent performance, that.

Here is another report of the concert. Notice the writer, like I, don't have too many words for the Mahler.

02 November, 2019

Note from Mumbai

Note From Mumbai

Dear Readers, I am excited to have my friend Vivek R contributing occasionally. He lives in Mumbai. From what I have read the City receives some very interesting musicians. As one who has particular interest in Russian artists, I read with envy.

"...Meanwhile in Mumbai a whole season passed by. Like that! 

Lazarev conducting Stravinsky’s Petrushka was amazing. It was preceded by Barry Dougas playing a competent Brahms Piano Concerto 2 (not one of my favourites). 

Lazarev apparently conducted a brilliant Spartacus and Tchaikovsky which I missed. Underwhelming (for me) was Barry Douglas’s Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (big sound but missing drama, but many others seemed to have enjoyed it - I heard Sofya Gulyak a few years ago and man did that have all the drama) and a patchy Midori concert - an awesome Debussy being standout. 

There was also a piano for 4 hands with Roberto Prosseda and his wife - a very lovely concert with a pretty Mendelssohn and fantastic Ravel (Mother Goose) and Schubert Fantasia. 

There was also a great concert with Marat Bisangaliev and Prosseda playing Chausson concerto for violin, piano and strings and Mendelssohn which I am biased to like!  Alas I was in the throes of Office politics that evening and the mind wandered. 

Lazarev conducting Russian music. Outstanding! (editor: completely agree!)


Ps. A moment of pride for me. Someone did a bootleg recording that I don’t condone but am grateful as it features my youngest on the cello for an encore. My eldest debuted as a second violinist (first row).

29 September, 2019

Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung

Concert Review: Doublebill: Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung

September 27, 2019, Geffen Hall
NYPO - Jaap van Zweden - Nina Stemme - Katarina Karneus - Johannes Kranzle
Schoenberg - Bartok

My penchant for one-act (or just mercifully short) operas shows I am not the usual opera lover. For me, the music ought to tell the story better than the action, which is always way stylized and will never be as realistic as in films, though that doesn't keep a never ending army of directors to try their de-constructive ways.

Bartok's Buebeard's Castle is an absolute favorite and I own many important recordings, but I have never seen it on stage or even in an orchestral program (later this year, Rattle will also conduct one in Carnegie Hall). As for Schoenberg, although I like the even more hysterical Pierrot Lunaire even more, Erwartung appeals too. Although I went in doubting Jaap was the person to carry it out, I was both pleased and annoyed by the results, which has nothing much to do with the music - this was a staged concert, but director Bengt Gomer's effort was definitely pedestrian and distracting.

The protruding wedge of the stage was not big, and the singers had to maneuver carefully, lest they drop off the precipice (I hate that kind of constraints). Well, OK, space was at a premium. But that ghastly rectangular screen just read like a large iPad. It flickered and emitted patterns more appropriate for Close Encounter of the Third Kind, that we were supposed to decipher. The paleness and fluorescence supposedly is more suited to to Erwartung, which takes place under the moonlight. But, hey, moonlight and shadows, even when threatening, have beauty, whereas this doesn't. Katarina Karneus sang perhaps too well, and the orchestra was totally committed too. I actually missed a more manic perspective (more sense of struggle), more sprecht than sing, that I think would be more appropriate to the drama.

Even worse was the pretense of the autopsy/surgical table. Many "artists", past or present, seem to delight in taking a stab at doctors (Wozzeck, very much related to the works here, is an example), but the metaphor of the doctor as cold and ruthless is simply false and have been re-hashed just too many times to not make one yawn. In this case, it seriously erred by detracting us from the torment/plight of the woman. The music is about her mind, not about the dead body, but that was forgotten. Karneus had to hold and threw flowers, and crawl on the floor - for what?

Bluebeard was very well sung by Nina Stemme (who HK audience would be familiar with) and Johannes Kranzle. The NYPO played with feelings, though not much Hungarian flavor (one would not expect that of Jaap). The magnificence of Bartok's incredibly colorful score came shining forth nonetheless. What truly bothered me again was the staging. This is an opera with much blood on the walls, so to speak, so some red color was allowed, but the staging was completely static and failed miserably to reflect the kaleidoscopic world of the music. The conceit of staying in sepia, or diluted colors, just failed the music. But that was not the worse. The most upsetting thing for me was the demeaning of Bluebeard, who was directed to become a much smaller, pitiable and perversely comical character. Murder or not, Bluebeard was high up in society, and would not have behaved like that. A more grisly and lurid staging would have been much better. That the music rose above the direction was indeed a testament to Bartok's magnificent score.

Guess what? I actually think the screen and all that gratuitous staging represent the director and his cohort. Most unfortunate.

Two ushers were discussing the program. They detested it, while heaping praise on the earlier Psycho. Ah, the great Bernard Hermann's score.