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Foreseeing a Triumphant China Tour

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
01/07/2009 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan: Overture, Op. 62 – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp minor

Chen Sa (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

Chen Sa

In the coming two weeks, HKPO and its music director Edo de Waart will launch an extensive China tour, performing in Guangdong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and tonight’s concert was a prelude to their tour. Since Maestro de Waart became HKPO’s Music Director in 2004, Beethoven and Mahler have been among their central repertoires. During this China tour, they will present their best to the homeland audience by playing representative works by these two composers.

I listened to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture by HKPO and Edo de Waart in 2006. At that time, it was a perfunctory rendition with coarsely polished phrases and bumpily balanced texture. On Wednesday evening, the same piece by the same orchestra and the same conductor gave me a completely opposite perception. The opening tutti chords were a full display of HKPO’s refined balance. The following string spiccato and pizzicato were delivered with utmost discipline and evenness. Edo de Waart’s bringing out of inner voices and hidden melodies gave this stark miniature extra complexity and intricacy. However, the serenity and majesty upstaged Beethoven’s sense of craving and revenge, a foremost spirit of Coriolan.

As a young rising Chinese pianist, Chen Sa has performed with many prestigious orchestras and conductors. This youthful but experienced musician, together with Edo de Waart’s sympathetic orchestral accompaniment, rendered a hand-in-glove collaboration of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Throughout the three movements, hardly a beat was out of place by the pianist and the conductor communicating closely through eye-gaze and body language. The soloist’s eloquent ebullience and the orchestra’s chamber-scale intimacy generated a vivid contrast in character. But this imbalanced contrast somehow sacrificed some of the rapt dialogues between the soloist and the orchestra. The third movement was particularly uneasy when the oboe melodies and some other important orchestral lines were heavily overshadowed by the glaring piano tone. Nonetheless, Chen’s flawless technique and de Waart’s native understanding of Beethoven’s language made this an authentic and brilliant account.

Mahler’s symphonies were also HKPO’s regular concert pieces. In the Symphonic Century series early this season, they played the Titan Symphony; last month, they performed his Ninth under Edo de Waart for the first time; two weeks later, there will be Mahler Tenth under Maestro David Zinman. Tonight, as a preparation for their China Tour, they chose Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which they collaborated with APA orchestra two years ago. Like the Beethoven in the first half, this large-scale work was again a coherent and carefully polished rendition. Clear articulation, natural and long phrasing arc, transparent inner voices and cantabile string melodies were cardinal features of HKPO’s playing throughout the second half. The fourth Adagietto movement was the most triumphant part with Maestro de Waart deliberately choosing a faster tempo to outline the flowing sense and long singing lines. The upbeat start of the main melody was also thoughtfully calibrated with natural agogic accents, supported the string’s barely audible and extremely colorful harmonic background. The sense of simplicity and innocence in the last movement retained the characters found in Mahler’s previous symphonies.

On the other hand, HKPO was still unable to get rid of their old habits of under-wrapped climatic power, suffocating string tones, and lack of exuberance and ebullience. Although their playing was mostly disciplined and refined, passion and enthusiasm were crucial factors distinguishing a “good” performance from a “great” performance. We wish HKPO a successful China tour, and, at the same time, to use this opportunity to dig into their problems and improve their qualities.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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