2015年5月3日 星期日

The two latest concerts: Zhang Xian's Roman Festivals & Johannes Wildner's Flying Frenchmen (最近两場音樂會:張弦的羅馬節日及懷德納的飄泊法國人)

Very busy lately. Hence a big regret and an even bigger sense of guilt because I had two excellent concerts recently, the first including even a world premiere! The first was Zhang Xian's Roman Festivals. Zhang is an up and coming Chinese conductor from Shanghai. He conducted for us several pieces by Ottorino Resphighi (1879-1936) rarely played together: the third part of the composer's so-called "Roman Trilogy" comprising Circuses, Jubilee, October Festival and the Ephiphany. Resphigi is known among hi-fi aficianados in Hong Kong chiefly for his very colorful Pines of Rome. So my concert going hi fi friends were all pleasantly surprised that Respighi had other interesting pieces too. I think I have a fairly good idea why. Respighi is a most audacious innovator in imitating "real life" sound and in the Roman Festivals( the spiritual god-father of George Gershwin?)  he gave himself full rein in these pieces. eg, he used 3 buccines (ancient Roman curved trumpets resting on the player's shoulders" to replicate the feeling the Roman populace experienced upon hearing the clarion call for the entry of gladiators in the Roman circus) and tavolettes ( hollow boards struck by hammers). He must be considered a precursor of the composer of modern movie music though he might be rivalled by Berlioz in that regard. His music seems calculated to evoke in the audience, perhaps kinaesthetically, various very visual images and in the case of the Roman Festivals, the various images associated with the title of the four episodes and if so, then he must be considered a huge success, at least as far as my friends are concerned. There is such a rich combination of various moods: quiet, contemplative, solemn, religious, ominous, agitated, light-hearted, jolly, confusing, boisterous and exuberant, switching moods quickly from one piece to another and even within the same piece, from one part to another and conveyed to us by the huge dynamic range, in all kinds of rhythms provided by the extremely rich mix of orchestral sounds from all conceivable kinds of instruments and percussions so that the HKPO had to be out in full force and had even to hire some outside trumpet help. The result is a very obvious: one really gets the feeling that one is watching a moving panorama of Roman life with in all kinds of situations with "typical" Italian inconsistencies complete with some very Mediterranean excesses.

The concert began, however, not with Respighi but with the world premiere of a piece callled 亂彈 or Luan Tan(transliteration) meaning "cacophonous/chaotic playing", by a very talented contemporary Chinese composer called Chen Qigang (陳其鋼), who was the music director of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Chen studied music at the start of the Cultural Revolution, was "re-educated" before resuming his study after its end under the very orchestral-color conscious French composer Messaien in 1983, being his last and most faithful student. One detects traces of Messaien's style in his music in his careful choice of different musical instruments for their sonic qualities. Like many contemporary Chinese composers, Chen also tries to incorporate certain Chinese elements in his music but he does so rather like Tchaikovsky, by imitating their style or form and feeling in his composition in his own idiom rather than taking entire phrases or melodic lines from traditional "folk" pieces and then giving them some orchestral elaboration, like so other less talented composer. This is very evident in this piece. In fact, "luan tan" is a musical style in Chinese Kun Opera (昆劇) that started in the 1600s. The idea is a bit like improvisations in modern jazz in which players are allowed considerable freedom to "play around" with the very unique sound of their particular instruments in certain parts of the music. According to the Programme Notes, the composer said that in this piece, he was trying to strike out in a radically different direction from his previous "melancholic", "sentimental" style. So in this piece, we find passages with melodies with others without any, but that doesn't mean that there is absolutely no unity in the sound. Certain motifs do reappear time and again but transformed and as differently interpreted or varied by different sections of the orchestras or even individual instruments and the entire piece is held together by its very obvious and insistent rhythmic structure so that one doesn't get the feeling that it's entirely "cacophony" or "confusion" and nothing but confusion. It's really difficult to render in words what he's doing. Music is meant to be heard and felt, not written about! As Duke Ellington once quipped about "jazz": if you have got to be told what it is, then you'll never know what it is but if you know it, you don't have to be told what it is and you've got to figure out a way of saying it without saying it! Voila! But I suppose that in this piece, very detailed instructions have given on how to play the various instruments and to achieve what kind of effects because it is not always immediately obvious what kind of effect(s) the composer has in mind. Indeed I'm told that Chen specially came to Hong Kong for such explanatory or co-creative help. I don't know if that's true. In any event, after the piece, at least none at the Cultural Centre cut their seats or yelled "rubbish" and he did appear on the stage to acknowledge the huge applause he got.

After the interval we got a rather more "regular" piece, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.2 in C minor Op. 17, popularly known as the "Little Russian".  This is another one of those seldom heard symphonies in Hong Kong, most people being familiar only with that prolific composer's 1812 Overture, his Piano Concertos and his No. 5. The No. 2 was written in 1872, whilst Tchaikovsky was on holidays in Ukraine. It got its name  from the Russian critic Nikolay Kashin after he heard a revised version of it in 1979. But whatever the reason for its name, the "Russian" element really came from the still recognizable melodies of "Down by the Mother Volga" played first by the horns and then the bassoon in the first movement which Tchaikovsky has fully developed. The first movement does have a kind of alternatively lilting and joyous and tender qualities reminiscent of the character of the ordinary folks of that granary of Russia. The second movement contains a wedding march from the composer's abandoned opera Undine with its heavy rhythms but also a very tender, peaceful and graceful melody. The third movements opens very energetically and one feels a certain tension and strife in the music which rises and falls higher and higher, the tension being maintained by its quick tempo which keeps mounting. I have a secret suspicion that some of the elements of fourth movement might have been taken from his 1812 overture, especially in its opening. The main melody might have been taken from the Russian folksong "The Crane" but it certainly came to a very fiery close.

The second concert last night is something totally different again. Not longer Italian or Russian, it's a completely French programme. We had Berlioz' s(1803-1869) Harold in Italy Op. 16; Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole and Roussel's Bacchus et Ariande Suite No. 2. The conductor is someone who had already come to Hong Kong once, when he conducted two of Schumann's symphonies in January 2014 : his No. 3 & 4 as part of the Schumann Festival programme. (see http://elzorro927.blogspot.hk/2014/01/schumanina.html#more) : the very enthusiastic Austrian conductor  Johannes Wildner.  Last night, he remained true to himself, all zest and energy, something which is truly infectious.

Harold in Italy was originally a long 4-part narrative partly autobiographical poem called Childe Harolde's Pilgrimmage by the romantic poet,Lord Byron, describing the adventures of Childe Harolde ("childe meaning someone waiting to be knighted) through which he sought self-discovery through a mixture of cunning and sensitivity to his ever changing environment. In this piece, the role of the Byronic hero is taken up by the viola, played for us by Andrew Ling, one HKPO's principal violinists. The piece was inspired by Berlioz's (1 encounter with the world renowned magician of the violin, Pagananini who asked Berlioz for a piece for the viola. But what Berlioz actually produced was actually what he called "a symphony with a viola solo", premiered in Paris in 1834 .Like a symphony, it has four movements, respectively Harold in the Mountains, Procession of Pilgrims, Serenade and The Brigand's Orgies.  The first part opens in a dark and solemn mood with heavy bass sound to suggest the presence and ominous magnificence of the mountains hidden in the clouds and the long and slow Harold theme is suggested by the solo viola against the pastoral serenity of the harp, a theme which is then taken up by the whole orchestra. The second movement is supposed to describe the slow and quiet and plodding movements of the pilgrims as they move along in the evening towards their destination. Parts of the sound of the viola reminds me of certain themes of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherade when the boat is swaying from side to side. The third is supposed to suggest encounter of the serenading musicians with Harold in his travels something represented by the parts played by oboe, the piccolo against a lyrical background provided by the cor anglais whilst the final movement is supposed to represent the unrestrained expression of violent emotions of an orgy by an unruly band of thieves and robbers.

The second piece of the evening is one most hi fi fans in Hong Kong would be quite familiar with: Maurice Ravel (1975-1937)'s Rapsodie espagnole whose four movements run without a stop viz. Prélude à la nuit, (Prelude to the Night), Malagueña, Habeñera and Feria, the latter three named after various Flamenco dance forms. The first is supposed to evoke the feelings of a long hot and annoying Spanish evening, the second the sad and heroic Malagueña form, the third imitates the easy and light mood of the Habeñera whilst the final is intended to evoke the atmosphere of a Spanish festival (feria), full of music, rhythms, drinks, and emotional abandon ending in a fiery climax.

The final piece is a piece which I never heard before: Albert Roussel (1869-1937)'s Bacchus et Ariadne, Suite No. no.2 . As the title suggests, it's a mythical Greek tale about abduction of Ariadnes by Dionysius (the Roman Bacchus of wine). According to the Programme Notes, the music for the acts of the ballet are written as if they were two complete symphonic scores. The second suite was first premiered in 1934 . In the story, Ariadne was on sitting on a rock by the sea of a barren island. She saw her lover Theseus leave on a boat. In her despair, she climbs up a cliff and hurls herself down but is caught by the god Bacchus, who falls in love with her, kisses her and then she dances  with him and a whole crowd join in the frenzied Bacchic party which follows. Thus the music moves from a mood of melancholy, to romance and finally to a barbaric explosion of ecstatic emotions. I hear in the final part some of the kind of sound first heard of in Stravinsky's Rites of Spring.

is excellent and whips the HKPO into giving its best and that includes Andrew Ling who plays the viola.  Ling told us that he would dedicate his play that evening to his son, who just reached his 100th day from birth. So a very meaningful performance and a very satisfying evening indeed, not just for the audience but for Ling too!.