Hong Kong Arts Festival
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1919) – Symphony of Psalms
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Bells, opus 35
Simon O’Neill (Tenor), Pavel Baransky (Bass)
London Philharmonic Choir, Neville Creed (Chorus Director), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor)
It was no mean feat to deliver such a challenging orchestral programme simply in one evening – on one hand, as a paid tribute to the Russian masters Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, and on the other, to satisfy both the aurally-trained and those simply curious attendees of the 36th Hong Kong Arts Festival. Not only did our local musicians of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) deliver the music skillfully and compassionately, but empathy was a virtue that shone luminously within each of our musicians, as players and audience alike cheered on the return of the London Philharmonic Choir in their first of two concerts in this year’s festival. In one combined force, through one common medium, these musicians spoke in an universal tongue and delivered by far one of the festival’s benchmark performances in terms of quality and creative art to their appreciative audience. Unique to Hong Kong tonight is also the under-appreciated performance of Rachmaninoff’s rarely-heard magnum opus, The Bell. On stage were soprano Tatiana Monogarova, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Pavel Baransky as the soloists, all led harmoniously by our beloved Maestro, Edo de Waart.
The 1919 reorchestration of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite sounded the first note in tonight’s programme. The slow first movement, the Introduction, sounded as a continuation to dreams of long-forgotten legends, even though it cast a dark sinister mood. We meet the world of the evil King Kaschel, first introduced by muted double basses and cellos, then joined by muted violas. Quite shortly, the remainder of the large orchestra joined and sparkled in the Variation on the Firebird. The transition was masterfully crafted, whereby Stravinsky himself did not leave much time for the musicians to adjust for change, but under the wizardry of our Maestro, this was effortlessly done. The art of transition and musical craftsmanship were the hallmarks to Maestro de Waart’s conducting throughout the whole concert. Our clarinet soloist from the HKPO, Andrew Simon, astonished in this variation, as he did during various moments in the rest of the evening. The brass had a chance to excel in the Internal Dance of King Kastchei, and the all-important bassoon solo, performed by our principal bassoonist Kam Shui, was excellent. This gradually led to the beautifully-delivered opening horn call in the Finale by our principal horn player Mark Vines, which could have brought tear drops to a few out there who became completely absorbed in the glorious quality of the music. “The Firebird unleashed and alive” may have crossed the minds of a few, as such imagery transmitted under the wonderful coloration of the HKPO players. From the horn’s dolce solo onwards, Maestro de Waart structured a masterful build-up to the powerful and majestic conclusion of the piece, resembling the unbounded freedom achieved at last of the Firebird.
In our post-Christian age, it may be easy to overlook the spiritual significance that sacred works held for their composers and its importance to our age today. Like many composers before him, Stravinsky chose sacred texts not because of the obligations of patronage or the popular styles of the time, but it served as a vehicle allowing profound personal engagement with the text. Stravinsky wished to express something of that spiritual engagement through music, and in doing so, it placed spiritual vitality into a contemporary medium of cultural expression. Whether or not this idea was shared in the case of our Maestro or to the HKAF organizers, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms of 1930 set the stage as next on the programme, displaying first in foremost an unique arrangement of the Orchestra – lower strings including cello and double-bass players on the left, brass and woodwinds in the center, two Steinway concert-grand pianos and a beautiful Yamaha concert harp on the right to our Maestro. This was written by the composer in setting the text of the biblical chapter of Psalms into three symphonic movements, featuring also in full capacity, our invited London Philharmonic Chorus. While not “religious,” it had a direct appeal, and the lack of violins and violas lent a distinctive, sometimes organ-like sonority. Stravinsky began the first movement with a Psalm of lament, reflecting the fragility and temporality of human life, and walking close to the edge of despair. The second movement was a Psalm of hope, looking beyond the confines of time with faith towards the possibility of redemption, while the third movement was reserved to joy, calling people to celebrate God from the heart with every sense of musical textures.
To draw these moments of despair, hope and ultimately to joy, the London Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by its director Neville Creed, projected a vibrant sound, expertly navigating difficult, sometimes dissonant harmonies. The final “Alleluia” was a glowing summation of memorable beauty. The HKPO was confident and richly-coloured as a sympathetic accompanist. The Chorale-Variations, based on a Bach chorale delivered by members of the woodwind including flute, clarinet, and oboe players, featured an unorthodox orchestration, while giving it a unique sound. The choral timbre was dark, all held in against the sparkling winds and spiky harmonies of the orchestra. Here, though, the orchestral playing sound quite as clean and convincing as one might have expected due to the confine limitations of the concert hall, it grabbed the cheers of the audience with three ovations.
After the interval, the orchestra performed what would be considered the pinnacle in tonight’s tribute to Russian repertory - Rachmaninoff’s one-and-only four movement choral-symphony, The Bells. Based on the symbolist writer Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation on the original poem by Edgar Alan Poe, this was another one of those Romantic warhorses of the 20th century written for an extended large orchestra, a full-blown choir, together with one soprano, tenor and bass soloist as the three featured voices. The nearly forty minute-long composition, sometimes referred metaphorically as the “Bells of Moscow,” belonged in the category of a standard four movement structure; each of the movements supposedly represented by different bells according to the original text by Poe – silver sleigh bells, golden wedding bells, piercing brazen alarm bells and iron funeral bells. They were believed to serve as an analogy to depict the various stages of human existence from birth to death. Although the original text was American, Rachmaninoff’s clever orchestration of the sound world was unmistakably and profoundly Russian, making this piece unique in its stature. Irrefutably, to capture such a huge piece successfully and realistically to the unfathomed stages of human existence in forty minutes surely was no easy task to our Maestro, but triumphantly, our musicians and soloists tonight at large succeeded here not far from what one could describe as perfectionism.
The Bell offered a true challenge to all players of the large orchestra, not to mention the challenging technical demands posed on the voices of the chorus and the respective soloists. However, of them all, the conductor was certainly at the cornerstone – a musician (and a magician) that faced the greatest task to make this performance into a homogenous and effortless task. On one hand, the composition relayed a journey between several moods of humanity, culminated by birth to death, while on the other hand, there were musical examples highlighting the complex polyphonic and dense musical structures in which Rachmaninoff adeptly used to make this clearly an innovative composition second to none of its time. In this regard, Maestro de Waart had a keen interpretation on this mammoth composition, having recorded this work successfully with acclaimed praises in the past with the Finnish Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; his interpretation was one which paid careful observations to all corners on stage, from the softest plug of the violin strings to the unlimited powers and diaphragm control of the human voice, all in order to bring forth the natural transition of the musical moods. Any audience who attended this performance tonight should appreciate the very fine details projected by the HKPO in response to our Maestro, and could hardly be disappointed by the talented voices we had from our soloists and the London Philharmonic Choir. The latter had clear diction of the original Russian text, together with the most beautiful sides of human voice that made even the Angels envious. If Russian was not the mother-tongue of your heritage, then, the next forty minutes only made you a step closer falling in love with the Russian language and its art.
The opening orchestral passage immediately revealed a warmth, richness and clarity to the sound that was matched with visceral excitement, when the chorus entered with their shout of “Hear!” Simon O’Neill was the tenor in this short first movement, and though he is notorious for his Wagnerian roles, Russian works may still be at a secondary position by comparison, as he was the only soloist tonight who had to rely on printed text. Nonetheless, his sound was undisturbed and authentically Russian, projecting his words with conviction. Even sitting at the mid-section of the balcony, one could hear the fine balance he had attained in a natural way in front of the orchestra and chorus.
At this point, it is noteworthy to mention that the character of Rachmaninoff’s music in The Bells may surprise those listening to this work for the first time or for those avid listeners who may be more familiar with “Rachmaninoff the pianist” and not “Rachmaninoff the orchestrator” (towards the latter, he may only be a glitch behind Berlioz!) The music clearly was not as straight-forward as one might imagine from a standard classical-romantic symphony, first, it belonged under the disguise of a choral-symphony. Secondly, another unique feature that made this composition a hallmark of the 20th century (and Maestro de Waart clearly made this into the obvious by the end of the first movement), was that the music could convey a handful of different messages at any given time. In reminiscence, take for example the opening so far devoted to sleigh bells and wedding bells; they were not all unconfined joy, despite the fact that the tenor and chorus were transported by the joyfulness of their sleigh rides. Oblivion to a wishful dream, as an underlying doleful tone by the strings reminded the listeners in the audience and readers of the text that true happiness was only transient. A typical Slavonic melancholy suddenly interjected to overtake the joyous, ebullient music captured in those earnest tones of Simon O’Neill with his repercussions of gravitas.
In the second movement, the Lento movement began. Maestro de Waart moulded the music with just the right degree of flexibility allowing the appreciation of the lush, but never cloying, string players of his orchestra. Here, the strings had ample opportunities to sing on their instruments freely, and the resultant was one that projected beautifully. The music’s opening in these two movements served as an unleash of shadows; it was as if the tenderness of newly marital love was mixed with a warning, an analogy to marriage in which Rachmaninoff represented musically through the ingenious use of his players on stage; there were bounded to be storms as well as beautiful sunshine. The sensitivity of the singing by the wonderful chorus was matched with the native tongue of our Russian soprano, Tatiana Monogarova, who did at times force her tone too much against the chorus. As a result, this artificial coloring attenuated what would be the natural qualities of her tenderness. But, as the text grew to become dreamily romantic, Ms. Monogarova’s prayer-like recollections for the couple and her voice suited the caresses, as one recalled the moments of her solo lines.
Maestro de Waart unleashed a terrifying picture of the Scherzo, full of dramatic bite, illustrating how the peace and joy in the aforementioned sections were like shattered glass by this moment of the demonic Scherzo. The shrieking orchestra, together with the chorus created an atmosphere of danger, great urgency and attack throughout all corners of the concert hall. Members of the chorus projected clearly, even through the torrent of the percussion and brass, and the raging build-up of the movement towards the final crash of the drums, during which Rachmaninoff introduced his favorite Dies Irae motive, was overwhelming. Here, the projection of the timpani and brass drums were projected just to the right level, and created the needed (electric) shock to audience as jolts of energy.
The final gloomy Lento lugubre in C sharp minor was the most moving of all four movements, with particularly fine playing from the cor anglais and solo horn players. One could easily forgive for the bellowing of the baritone soloist Pavel Baransky on his first entry, since he improved throughout the movement with doleful tones of mourning above the grieving chorus. Compliments on the marvelous way Maestro de Waart handled the wonderful consoling ending of the work. Here, Rachmaninoff’s treatment to the gloominess of the text was represented with an irony - the text was coupled by a glorious melody towards the very moments of the work’s ending, like hope hidden in despair. Using music, Rachmaninoff reminded us that in all difficulties and dangers, there will always be hope and consolation. The closing passage was particular moving to any listener who followed the music and text throughout, and together with Maestro de Waart’s sympathetic and careful reading, it disarmed any possible criticism crossing in one’s mind as the music was allowed to die away with the fading of time.
All-in-all, there were a few minor blemishes throughout the entire evening, as it was inevitable for such a long scale works. Nevertheless, the performance proved an uplifting evening, certainly for performers, audience and the organizers alike. A first-class performance, particularly to Rachmaninoff’s thrilling choral masterpiece under the voices of the London Philharmonic Choir and the three soloists, stood the test of time. Surely, The Bell deserves to be better known on our concert stage today and is equally important in the standard repertory, as say, Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (No.8). To echo the many wonderful performances delivered by Maestro de Waart and his HKPO, may their fruitful collaborations continue to excel in the years to come.
Patrick P.L. Lam