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Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Day 2)

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
02/16/2008 -  
Gioachino Rossini: La Scala di Seta, Overture
Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op.85
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 in A Major, Op.90 "Italian"

Alisa Weilerstein (Cello)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Over 80,000 visitors come to attend the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) every year - whether the young or the old, the new or the renewed, we all gather together in the heart of Hong Kong to simply exhaust the very limits of our senses and to enjoy the crème de la crème. What fairs as a better way to experience all the world’s very best but to hear them all gathered in one city to pay tribute on this special occasion? From audio to visual, down to the very basics of feelings and touching moments, audiences take part in the various programmes of the HKAF from solo recitals to theatrical productions beginning in early February of each year. The HKAF has become one of the most important festivals and cultural-exchange icons in Asia, internationally as well as for China. Under the management of Ms. Tisa Ho, HKAF has extended its programme by inviting world-class artists and ensemble groups to share in their arts to locals and visitors coming for all parts of the world. This year, we celebrate the esteemed visions of the HKAF, now at its 36th year.

Tsim Sha Tsui’s Cultural Center warmly welcomes back the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) together with their Maestro, Lorin Maazel, to Hong Kong with a full-house attendance in tonight’s second evening of four concerts hosted by the HKAF. Lorin Maazel, now 78, may appear frail in physique if one were simply to judge his poco adagio pace along the concert stage or his frequent rests on the conductor’s rail high up on the podium. But, as he glided through this evening’s programme, he gradually grew out from these physical barriers with spontaneity and energies, swirling-off his ever youthful heart to our great un-expectations. Touching the hearts to a full-house auditorium with his revolving seating method of players, Lorin Maazel took up where he left off on Friday night and steadily paced himself and his players in the next 100 minutes into simply a different world than Friday’s - culminated by their warm-hearted music-making and energized personalities.

Going back to the press conference held on Friday at The Peninsula, when discussing what his decisions were on the choice of the programme, the Maestro himself alleged: "…I am delighted to be returning to Asia with the Philharmonic. It is always a great honor to present this Orchestra to audiences around the world … [our] programme is to make into reality what musicians dream of hearing in their minds could in actuality be played by these excellent [NYPO] musicians.” Bonded to this bold statement, Maestro Maazel and the NYPO ended their first concert on Friday officially with Dvorak’s Symphony No.7 on a strong note. Looking at their programme tonight, we see again a standard pattern in their choice of repertory: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. To fulfill their pledge for musical exchange in this Asian tour, Maestro Maazel stirred up his baton to begin the opening, with an overture to one of early Rossini’s classical opera, La Scala di Seta. Maestro Maazel has a strong affinity for Rossini throughout his conducting career and in this little orchestral teaser to the public, it was evident – the conducting and playing was remarkable for its incisiveness, brio and a sense of fun. These qualities were highlighted particularly well from a group of skillful, light-aired woodwind players, especially from the charming voices of the two oboe players, most notably from the Chinese principal oboist, Zhang Xian. This Overture married polished and vibrant orchestral playing from over 40 players into a single stream. Maestro Maazel effortlessly captured the high spirits of La Scala di Seta, setting stage to portray the comical picturesque drama of the Opera. It may be only when you listen to the unrestrained brio and super-refined orchestral execution of Fritz Reiner’s classical Chicago Symphony recording that one might then have noticed what Maestro Maazel (and practically, everyone else) is missing. Nevertheless, this short overture set the stage for the many excitements to come in the remainder of the evening.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op.85, composed between 1918-1919, has became a popular showcase for most of the great cellists of our time in the twenthieth century, most notably the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Britain’s very own prodigy Jacqueline du Pré. Yet, the piece is not merely a virtuoso vehicle; it also requires a poetic approach from the soloist as well. Alisa Weilerstein was our soloist featured tonight, and music connoisseurs had their eyes gazing hungrily to seek and spot the “natural virtuosity and technical assurance with impassioned musicianship” in this 25 year old American cellist, as notated in the programme notes by James M. Keller.

Initially, the poetry was somewhat lacking in Ms. Weilerstein’s performance. She started with shivers on her right hand, agitated, and during the first movement Adagio-Moderato, she bore a rather frustrated expression that was reflected in her playing as much as it did facially, as if she was bothered with physical and emotional uncomfort. Musically, this was transmitted into what sounded staggered playing and hesitations in the flow of her musical lines. Stage fright and warming-up, perhaps? But no, so it turned out, her introduction eventually became secure, her instrument’s projection gradually became apparent and the New York Philharmonic provided a sympathetic accompaniment to their compatriot. Yet, the capacity for this piece to rend the human soul in two was sadly lacking in the initial movement, and to those that were peculiarly keen with expectations to this Elgar’s magnum opus they felt misled into feeling that the next 45 minutes will be merely a “homework assignment” to the general public rather than an artist at work.

The atmosphere picked up enormously as the music passes from the bridge passage to the pseudo-scherzo Allegro molto. Here, Ms. Weilerstein reveled in the deep romanticism of the opening solo, articulating the staccato and legato contrasts with the utmost clarity and guiding the listener through the unraveling of the main theme. The technically demanding molto perpetuo aspect was thrilling even at a balcony away. Stage fright or not, what was heard in the first movement was essentially conquered by this time when she warmed-up with the Orchestra. Then, it was with the Adagio that brought Ms. Weilerstein’s artistry to the spotlight. Her communication, both with Maestro Maazel through eye contacts and the Orchestra was confident and grew more and more lucid, and she became gradually lost into the sheer beauty of Elgar’s very own creation. The finale was truly gripping: the orchestra finally unleashed, provided a lush background to Ms. Weilerstein’s fluid line. The many moments when all the instruments played homogenously as a single voice was simply mind-blowing. Maestro Maazel’s arrangement of the players in this revolving seating method with the lower strings seated on the right served its purpose to be the ideal acoustics for revealing Elgar’s (and later, Mendelssohn’s) huge and beautiful orchestral palettes. Specifically, the double basses were lined up high at the back projected well into the audience, the percussion well spaced to the back of the stage to allow ample resonance, while the division of the violins on either side of the platform allows contrasting lines in contrapunctal passages to be heard with wondrous clarity.

As Ms. Weilerstein sounded her very last bow with the Orchestra together in a triumphant ending, the entire audience raved with applause to certify her very success despite the initial hiccup in the very beginning. “How does a young cellist find the courage to perform not only one of the most famous works for their instrument, but one completely associated with notable masters from such strong heritage?” Never mind whether Du Pré’s interpretation is truly what Elgar intended or whether the latter preferred the iron-fist approach of Rostropovich’s, this performance tonight was certainly one of those more worthy of praise than comparisons. Thanks to a generally supportive audience, Ms. Weilerstein decided to tackle an encore from one of the selections of Bach’s Unaccompanied Suite for the Solo Cello. Here, we reaffirmed the cellist’s warm sense of tone and smooth phrasing; her cello treated each note with the same love, and these qualities were core qualities that demonstrated her unique view on standard repertoire. Not only did Elgar’s sense of loss wonderfully conveyed under her fingers, but even to Bach the grand, old master of the Baroque Era, she faired no less to treat it with gentleness and refine mannerism.

Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to begin his A major Symphony No.4 (the title Italian was his own) during a trip he made to Italy in 1830-1831. Mendelssohn's own words revealed to us that he “began the work with great enthusiasm and joy, but the composition was going anything but smoothly, and complained that it had cost him some of the bitterest moments of his life.” Certainly there was no reflection of that bitterness in this rich and vibrant music, let alone from the interpretations of tonight’s musicians.

Maestro Maazel and the NYPO had spent the first half of the intermission establishing the qualities that define their collaborations as distinctive – the sometimes over-the-top grandeur, edged with brass-tissimo (as one may recall during the first evening’s performance), offset by the ability to produce a heavenly pianissimo as one recalled in the Elgar Concerto. This second half of the Mendelssohn Italian is a magnification of the aforementioned impressions. From the opening bars, the exuberant first movement seemed to conjure up the sunny skies and landscapes of the Italian countryside. It expanded on the more graceful end of the Orchestra’s musical spectrum, showing off the silken shimmer of the Orchestra’s strings section, and to the movement’s final bars, with a magnificently controlled forté. The slow movement in D minor, also known reputably as the "Pilgrims' March", was said to have been inspired by a solemn religious procession in Naples or Rome. There were glimpses of a more refined side of the Orchestra’s sonic persona, and again, highlights of the contrasting first and second violin strings sore the very hearts of each listener with purity and lyrical beauty. The third movement was relaxed, an airy dance movement dominated by lyrical strings, with horns, and then somewhat more martial trumpets in the trio. The finale, a thrilling Saltarello, seemed virtually flawless in writing, as rumors had it that Mendelssohn was not happy with it and intended to revise it only never to have realized his dream as he died before implementing his plans in year of 1847. Usually, a minor-key symphony finale would have one or two contrasting episodes in major keys, but in this work Mendelssohn remained in the minor throughout, never letting the excitement lapse for a moment.

Mendelssohn’s Italian is irrefutably one of the greatest symphonies of all time, and under the crafts of our Maestro tonight, together with a group of NYPO musicians known with a standing history of critical acclaim to this particular Romantic oeuvre, the music simply flowed in their blood. It is indeed very difficult to find a rivalry to compete in excellence, judging by the wealth of musical grasp and technical adeptness these players shone in Mendelssohn. Something new is heard every time this ensemble performs this work in particular – whether it is with Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta or Herbert Blomstedt, just to name a few Maestros that have tackled this work with the NYPO in recent years. Undoubtedly, it would have been headline news in the music tabloids to hear any of the Orchestra’s members getting tired of playing this symphony, as it seemed blazingly apparent that they performed it with great love yesterday night. Maestro Maazel took excellent tempi throughout, and the woodwinds in particular were outstanding, especially in the final movement. The entire performance was effortlessly beautiful.

With the Mendeslssohn ending on Mount Everest, the audience simply could not be satisfied without an encore to resolve the climax. To our very pleasing surprise, we ended up on Mount Olympus! Maestro Maazel hastened without a minute to waste into Brahms’ very own Hungarian Dances, first beginning with the notable No.5, then back to the No.1, both in the key of G Minor. Interestingly, Maestro Maazel conducted these works in the versions that were added with his very own arrangements and modifications of the strings, making these little gems even richer in Hungarian flavor and almost spicy in taste. The Maestro purposely manipulated with the tempo, extending the breaths and rests, holding onto the tick of time in an almost humorous manner as if he wished to tease his audience. How can the audience not respond by cheering for even more? With no luck to more Orchestral bon-bons, the audience at large could only await for Monday night’s performance for more brilliance on stage with the New York Philharmonic. Indeed, with such a group of excellent musicians spanning all parts of the world, from East to West, no wonder it would be hard to find rivals to this American ensemble, either nationally or even on the world’s stage.

So, Monday night it is – same place, same time, but the programme only gets better. Stay-tuned!

Patrick P.L. Lam



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