Splendid Austro-German Odyssey
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
01/23/2009 - and January 24*
Anton Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 10 - Adagio
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, David Zinman (Conductor)
Amongst all the guest artists HKPO invites this season, David Zinman is the most celebrated one. So there was great anticipation for HKPO’s concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings. The dynamic American conductor became a good friend of Edo de Waart (HKPO’s Artistic Director) when they met in the Netherlands – de Waart and Zinman were the principal conductors of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in 1973-79 and 1979-82 respectively. Another thing these two maestros have in common was their enormous interest in Austro-German repertory. Music by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Wagner, which were rarely heard in Hong Kong before Edo de Waart’s arrival in 2004, has become HKPO’s central repertoire. Tonight, Mr. Zinman continues this Odyssey by bringing the peak of Austro-German musical tradition, rendering works by three different composers from the early twentieth century.
Anton Webern was perhaps best remembered by his aphoristic atonality, the style he used after his op.3. The Passacaglia, Webern’s first official publication, was composed during the time when he was Schoenberg’s pupil. Obviously, this title pays tribute to his Austro-German ancestors such as Bach and Brahms. Maestro Zinman clearly realized this connection by bringing to the surface Webern’s provocative contrapuntal interest without compromising its colorful timbre and variegated sonorities. Under Zinman’s commanding baton, this rare concert piece was transformed into an orchestral showpiece with all the HKPO musicians playing in unity and control that execute Webern’s every beautiful lyricism and sorrowful darkness convincingly.
Anton Webern’s interest and respect to his Austro-German predecessors extended from Bach to Mahler. Although there was hardly a stylistic linkage between these composers, as a conductor, Webern frequently included Mahler’s music to his program. Alban Berg wrote to his wife after seeing him conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony “without exaggeration: Webern is the greatest conductor since Mahler – in every respect”. Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was actually composed two years after Webern’s Passacaglia. The virtuoso passages from this unfinished masterpiece seemed to give some technical hurdles to HKPO’s string players – there were occasionally flubbed ornaments in viola and scratchy high notes in violins. Nevertheless, these little troubles were upstaged by Mr. Zinman’s electrifying reading of the score. Fluent and suave string phrasings, insightfully dovetailed woodwinds, and cohesively constructed architecture are cardinal qualities of this fascinating account.
The most enthralling highlight of the evening came from the second half. Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra was composed when he was in his early 30’s. But this tone poem was quickly acclaimed as one of the composer’s finest works, and it proved to be a score of considerable influence. (Bartók was inspired to devote his life to composition after hearing the Budapest premiere in 1902.) It is the philosophical and religious background, together with the work’s pioneering orchestration and massive architecture, which brings immense challenge to every conductor. But Mr. Zinman fully displayed his native understanding and superb familiarity to this orchestrally and structurally bulky artwork. Although he conducted the whole piece form memory, hardly a note went through without Mr. Zinman bringing thoughtful interpretation and carefully calibrated details to each voice. He showed complete command and total involvement at every moment, and the orchestra responded with superb execution and exquisite balances required to accomplish the music’s full-throated climaxes. Without even one drop of sweat appearing on his face, Mr. Zinman demonstrated to the younger-generation of conductors how to put into effect the most visceral excitement by the minimal and economic body language. None of the musician was able to escape from this 73-yeard-old maestro’s arms. Every intention and musical thought was realized by his extraordinary control of the orchestra. After the unsolved conflict between nature and the human at the end of the piece, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. It is really a pity that the concert hall was just 70% occupied.
Danny Kim-Nam Hui