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A journey in the musical worlds of Carl Nielsen and Richard Wagner

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
05/16/2008 -  
Carl Nielsen: “Maskarade” Overture – Flute Concerto
Richard Wagner/Henk de Vlieger: The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure

Emmanuel Pahud (Flute)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

The theater world was central to the musical life of Carl Nielsen. During his lifetime, his music was the trademark of a definition of new, forward-looking, or "young" Classicism, which differed from the prevailing Late Romantic trends of music in Europe at the time. Nielsen’s music is sophisticated, playful and direct, and in many ways sounds more optimistic than the more serious-dark Germanic-oriented works of the same period. The music of Nielsen represented the first half in tonight’s music programme, featuring Maestro de Waart’s choice with an opening of the composer’s Maskarade Overture.

Here, in this opening overture, there is even a sense of humor, such as the sounds of the cockerel strutting amongst the hens. One is rarely likely to hear such ebullient high spirits in the Maskarade Overture than under the baton of Edo de Waart, who has rejuvenated musicians of the Hong Kong Philharmonic ever since his inauguration as Chief Conductor in the fall of 2004. It was fairly refreshing to begin the evening with this piece, played like an exuberant pièce d'esprit.

Nielsen was a master at writing for wind instruments, and at one point he projected writing a concerto for all members of the Danish Wind Quintet (that is, for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn). The Flute Concerto that was featured tonight was one of the two compositions that he got in realizing this project before his death in 1931. This particular concerto pitched the soloist against all other instruments in the orchestra, like a gushing waterfall set against a serene landscape.

The fastidious flautist, here tonight with us was the Swiss-French Emmanuel Pahud, can surely be called an exponent on this work; Mr. Pahud had received a Gramophone award for his recording of this concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. The performance tonight reassured audience that our soloist, Emmanuel Pahud, is without a doubt one of the finest young flautists currently on the scene. What makes him fabulous lies not only in his technical agility, but his insight to transform a work that appears strangely disjointed, as though it is almost free of form, into a narrative, a story about the wonderful Nordic travels and scenery Nielsen has encountered in his lifetime. Along these lines, the music is interjected with Mr. Pahud’s exciting and energetic persona, at times with melodies sounding even quirky and comical in nature, but altogether, this has transformed what appeared to an unfulfilling and enigmatic Concerto into a spotlight for the flute that stands the test of time amongst others written previously by Nielsen’s peers. In retrospect, this Flute Concerto has many challenges for the soloist because episodes are easily started, but then abandoned; ideas are put forth, but then easily discarded. Throughout the work, no mood really dominates, and there is no clear recognizable motifs or lines of emotional development that joins from bar to bar. The challenge here is for the soloist to conjoint what appeared “fragments” into a meaningful canvas and Mr. Pahud strived par excellence as a musician to fulfill this daunting task. For the average listener trained to the Romantic repertoire of Beethoven or Brahms, Nielsen’s music may be difficult to grasp because notes do not seem to make much sense, where the wealth of natural instinct for the flow of musical lines calls upon the soloist’s attractive ability to bring out what he/she deems best. While the notes are hard, the difficulty lies in the interpretation. Although Nielsen seemed to have written his Concerto with such an intention in mind, our soloist Emmanuel Pahud was able to portray a fantastical journey about the beautiful Nordic natural landscapes in his mere thirty-five minutes on the concert stage.

Richard Wagner began to sketch the Ring story in 1848, and was finished with a fairly complete libretto by 1852. Henk de Vlieger, a fabulous Dutch composer, arranger and principal percussionist of the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, has selected from the four operas of the Ring a number of pre-eminent symphonic musical segments on a commission by Edo de Waart. The result was an hour long re-cap of the beautiful moments put together into an orchestral suite, which is better unknown in the title The Ring - An Orchestral Aadventure. In many ways, this beautiful work could be taken as a crash course on “Wagner: a musical introduction to mythology.”

In this orchestral adventure, Henk de Vlieger ingeniously preserved intact all the original contrapuntal texture, rabid chromatics, atonal harmonies (quickly shifting or rapid changes in tonal centers), orchestration, instrumentation and sequence of leitmotifs (leading motifs – themes) created by Wagner. Remarkably, it also included Wagner’s traditional Bayreuth Festival practice of an ‘invisible orchestra,’ ie. the music is up front but also presented in a very effective way which Wagner called “lontano” (or offstage instrumental location effects). For example, in the relative quiet beginning from Das Rheingold’s Prelude was heard seemingly ascending from the bowels of Valhalla where the Gods resided and culminated with the theme of the Descent of the Gods Into Valhalla. The HKPO, under Maestro de Waart personal instructions, admirably balanced this slow-paced ascend and descend with effectively managed crescendos and diminuendos truly reflecting that invisible orchestra in a virtual invisible stage. With this music, Henk de Vlieger masterfully recreated all the inner drama contained in these four operas, including Wagner’s rich orchestral palette as well as the harmonic color that are hallmarks to his music. The same applied to the complexities of Wagner’s chromatics, which became more and more intense in their juxtaposition of themes, tonalities, rhythm and different shades of musical dynamics as the music went on.

Maestro de Waart’s execution of the score was opulent, especially in the low and high brass - but not to the exclusion of the woodwinds and/or the subtle sounds required from the very large string choir (this totaled to ~60 instruments)! This was a well-rehearsed suite expertly performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Maestro de Waart and the HKPO were truly the real heroes during this performance, and here, their musical homogeneity complimented the extremely talented author on this arrangement. Maestro de Waart took the orchestra to new heights, through a clearly delineated road with a firm baton imparting exemplary pacing right from the depths of the beginning ascending notes to the apotheosis of the end. Virtuosic orchestral playing was continuously maintained throughout the whole suite, and the Ride of the Valkyrie was absolutely impressive as performed with the required two pairs of Tenor B-flat and Bass F Wagnerian tubas. This imparted to the music a profound as well as a scary heroic tone. As a contrast, the funeral music acquired under Maestro de Waart’s baton, a touching tragic intensity which in turn enhanced by the timpani’s tremolos (with 2 sets of timpani) and the end (Brünhildes immolation) had pure orchestral majesty. A real interesting gimmick was that despite Wagner’s open dramatic endings, Henk de Vlieger’s arrangement came to an almost virtual closure with the last chords of the music, which lasted nearly a minute long. This drove the audience with the feeling that there was a vaguely conclusive end to the story, while in the original opera, the music would fade away into oblivion.

The HKPO drove audience into a new dimension of classical music, experience: together as one voice, Maestro de Waart and these musicians brought out the beauty in Wagner’s music far stronger and far more vivid than any libretti was able to execute. Truly, this was “Wagner without words” performed at its very best.

Patrick P. L. Lam



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