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Tribute to a brave old England

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
01/19/2008 -  
James MacMillan:Britannia!
Max Bruch:Scottish Fantasy, Op.46
Edward Elgar:Symphony No.1 in A Flat Major, Op.55

Huang Mengla (Violin)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

Let the sounds of the wonderful English mellow our soils again!

In this second week of January, the HKPO celebrate the second of the four Swire New Generation Concerts, featuring another “Huang” on the violin instrument as the featured soloist. Tonight, the 28 year old Chinese young virtuoso Huang Mengla delivered a spell-bounding performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, flanked in between James MacMillan’s Britannia! and Elgar’s lushingly heartful Symphony No.1 in A Flat Op.55. Indeed, tonight’s programme is a special tribute to British music from three quintessential composers spanning over a century, each of whom carry with them a special affinity towards the country known as United Kingdom. What makes each of their work different, as much as they are similar, lies in the time period in which their works represented. In two hours, the auditorium is filled with musical airs of British soil spanning over 100 years.

To begin, Maestro de Waart sets the mood of tonight beginning with MacMillan’s Britannia! Within less than two minutes into the piece, it is irrefutable to any pair of human ears on the floor what defines the unmistakable character of this orchestral delight – utterly, Britain, not only Britain by name, but Britain in sound. From the clear adaptation of the imperial themes from Elgar’s Cockaigne (from In London Town) to Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia!, this patriotic salute to the Britons throws in a volatile combination of representative themes that MacMillan uses to depict his reflections on traditional Britons, whereby clearly, his music is admixed with Scottish and Irish folk influences. One must be grateful for Maestro de Waart and Mr. Tim Calnin for deciding to programme this work into tonight’s programme, as rarely would one be able to hear a fanfare of percussion instruments on stage with such a contour. One of these is the Irish reel, which becomes a jig, but by in large, audience could appreciate a combination of musical jokes (or sound jerks) that ‘poke-right-at-your-face’ from what appears whistle blows, to bus honks, to what eventually turns into a Cockney drinking song! All such musical gadgets are cleverly highlighted, alongside with a quirky and spirited cascade of military tunes that characterized the allegro opening section. The slow adagio begins with a pastoral canon, with clear influences tracing to Vaughan-Williams very own pastoral themes, but uniquely different from the latter perhaps, is that this slow section may be MacMillan’s wishful musical picture on his beautiful Scottish/Irish plains as captured during his lifetime in the late 1980s. However, abruptly, the music becomes gradually corrupted by military illusions again, as attributed by the blazing percussion and blasting brasses. This dialogue of musical mix-n’-match leads the work to its climax, which ironically, reaches a conclusion defined by an inconclusive coda.

Huang Mengla’s playing style can be simply be put as graceful and beautiful, and in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, the music that originates out of his bow is mixed with a feeling innocence and maturity that attracts anyone to his music, whether young or old. Clearly over six feet tall, with a beautiful stature and a handsome portrait, Huang seems not be a show-off on stage, musically polite and gentle on his instrument, although one may be periodically distracted by his bodily movements, patella bending, to what appears as exaggerated elbow swings on his bow as he finishes off a virtuosic phrasing. Though it could be somewhat distracting to the eye, to the ear, his tone is musically representable, and is uncommon to violinists similar to his age. His playing has been direct and emotional, and aside from those abovementioned habits, he plays with unflagging enthusiasm, both to his audience and to his fellow musicians. In this Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Huang and Maestro de Waart come together in a great artistic partnership, and as a soloist, Huang has an astounding skill on controlling the violin and making it sing as a voice, and creates music in a clear statement that is refreshing to hear. Huang pays close attention to the delicate phrasing, and has absolute drive to excite the audience with his great dynamics and flawless technique, as depicted in the Finale. To Huang, the Scottish Fantasy is not merely a virtuoso showpiece, but together with the Orchestra, the violin is personified as an infinitely expressive, touching and provocative instrument. In retrospect, it is Huang’s passionate tone on his Giovanni Paolo Maggini in which he diversifies a kaleidoscopic palette of musical colors, bestowing in a spellbinding myriad of musical qualities that is cogent, commanding, robust and vigorous when the music demands so, as in the first and final movements. But, more important, what is characteristically Huang’s very own can be appreciated more clearly so in the slower second movement Scherzo and third movement Andante, where beauty, charm, sensuality and warmth bridge the two movements in a manner that has diamond-sharp perfection beyond what are mere fingerboard acrobatics. For a young artist of his age, Huang’s musicality is simply phenomenal. No wonder, even after four applauses, plus an encore by Eugene Ysaÿe to display his devilish technically skills in pizzicati, Huang deservingly receives another three sets of cheerful applauses from the unrestful audience. Be sure to follow the news of this ‘Paganini made in China’ in the years to come.

Very rarely does an Orchestra feature Elgar’s Symphonies, let alone his Symphony No.1 in A Flat Major Op.55. After a brief intermission, Maestro de Waart’s performance of this work in the next 45 minutes elevates the mood of the auditorium to a different height, with Wagnerian grandeur, and bold handling of tempi. Not only would the trained musical ears depict an interchange of musical material from Elgar’s very own Pomp and Circumstance March with this Symphony, but one will easily mark the heavy influence Elgar has had from the music of Mahler. In particular, Mahler’s immense affinity with nature and earth has met its English counterpart in this musical mammoth of Elgar’s. Traditionalists may find this work offensive, as it was dedicated to an Austro-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter who premiered this work back in 1908; nonetheless, musically, there is simply nothing dull nor pedantic about the grandeur that define this work. Tonight, special bravos should be emphasized on the slow third movement, in which Maestro de Waart carefully crafts his players to sing in a beautifully sustained and sublime tone, bring unison among his string players. Each of the climaxes is executed masterfully with maximum to anyone who hears this piece, whether it is the first time or for the ‘nth’ time. The four movement Finale is another one of those compelling and powerful moments during the entire duration of this Symphony, with care and skilled emphasis on the cascading strings in the very beginning of this movement that pave way to the musical drive that is to follow subsequently. This Symphony has been heralded as the ‘Greatest British Symphony’ and contains ‘one of the greatest slow movements of the Symphonic repertoire.’ By the end of the 45 minutes, one may conveniently redefine their perspectives of Elgar, from being the man who composed traditional small scale compositions like the Pomp and Circumstance Marches to a composer whose compositions are so massive in structure that ironically seemed non-Elgarian but rather in the dimensions that deceivingly seem to belong to Mahler and Bruckner.

Terms like ‘noble,’ ‘glorious,’ ‘majestic,’ and ‘dignified,’ also comes to one’s mind after the performance of tonight’s magnificent representative of 20th century Symphony. The discipline in playing from the HKPO players tonight has allowed Maestro de Waart’s vision to Romanticism to be expressed to new heights, after what is heard tonight. There are passages where Maestro de Waart, through the brilliance of Elgar’s music, allows one to feel the depths of personal despair, dark self-doubt, and such memories that are desperately unfulfilled longings. Who else fair as better men and women than the musicians of the HKPO to have brought this musical document of Elgar’s to grander triumph and brand new heights? Elgar would have been pleased with our Maestro tonight. May great music playing continue to blossom under the magic of the HKPO.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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