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Polished German Works Upstaged the Opening Night

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
08/14/2009 -  
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32

Jean Louis Steuerman (piano)
Asian Youth Orchestra, Matthias Bamert (Conductor)

Matthias Bamert

Except the opening Adagio for String Orchestra by Barber, AYO’s concert on Thursday (read here) gave the audience no memorable moment. It was the vulgar brass and perfunctory woodwinds that flubbed the balance and intonation of the orchestra. On Friday evening, AYO’s artistic director Richard Pontzious sat on the stall as an audience and passed the baton to Matthias Bamert, who conducted the orchestra for the first time.

The 67-year-old maestro established his reputation as a conductor by working as the Assistant Conductor to Leopold Stokowski and Resident Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. However, the Swiss conductor preserved much of his European tradition, setting a vivid contrast to Mr. Pontzious’ style in the opening night. Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in the first half was an introversive and polished reading, with meticulous articulation and round-edged phrasing throughout, even at the climax. Under Mr. Bamert’s baton, the orchestra’s intonation exuded a taste of central European sound – deep strings, light-aired woodwinds, and suave brass. Although the brass continued to be the weakest section of the whole orchestra, its vulnerability was deliberately hidden by always bringing the string tone to the surface. But the price they paid was an underpowered Scherzo and under-wrapped climatic summit. Moreover, in the last movement, which is a passacaglia and variations, the fragility of the brass was exhaustively exposed. Notwithstanding, the stark rumination imbued by Mr. Bamert was very Brahmsian.

Pianist Steuerman’s rendition of the Mozart Piano Concerto far upstaged his Ravel on Thursday evening. Comparing to the orchestra, which played with excessive richness and undulant lines, Mr. Steuerman adopted a more historically informed approach. He achieved this by playing at infinitesimal gradations of dynamics and tone, and with improvisatory ornaments at transitions, all of which evoking an extra sense of classicism. The second movement Romanza was particularly idiosyncratic, with his minimal pedaling and fluent tempo brought to life Mozart’s hallmark innocence and simplicity. Where most pianists underlined the emotional contrast of the passionate middle section, Mr. Steuerman rendered this vehement passage with sustained lightness and exquisite elegance, a rarity of its kind. The last movement was also imbued with improvisatory scales and rarely heard accents in the melodic lines. There was intimate collaboration between the orchestra and the soloist, although their stylistic approaches were not unified.

Like the Brahms symphony before the intermission, Mr. Bamert conducted Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini from memory. This technically exacting work is always a challenge for both players and conductor, but Mr. Bamert, though conducting the AYO for the first time, showed complete command to every musician on the stage. The orchestra got rid of its Austro-German introversion and intellection found in Brahms and Mozart, mutated into a more Russian aptitude – thick texture, fervent impetuosity, and ecstatic expressivity. The young players, especially the strings, were mostly in unity and discipline, a precious element of a youth orchestra, especially in such a technically demanding piece.

The AYO delivered Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 as the finale of their Hong Kong tour. On Monday and Tuesday, they will perform in Taipei, and the following stations are Gwangju, Seoul, Kyoto, Amagasaki, and Tokyo as their destination. We wish these young people a triumphant tour and bright outlook.

Asian Youth Orchestra’s Website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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