Ivana Wong (王菀之) is a name completely new to me. She gave us various "bottles" of music: Bottle of light: overture, doomsday, dream, brother, reprise; Bottle of hope: Melting clock, Hope, Ferris wheel, Reason; Bottle of Life: Poem, Mars, Lo-tech, Toxic Candy, Next Time; Bottle of the Fallen: The Bird, Lost in Art, The Best, Where is My Teddy, White, Grey and Bottle of Faith: Verdi's Requiem, Dies Irae, Heavenly Road, Inner Child, Anne Frank. She's a very talented, very middle class, very innovative local artist who seems ready to explore different kinds of music concentrating mainly on themes related to the joys and pains of growing up, love and the Christian God. She wrote most of the lyrics and perhaps the outlines of the relevant melody of all her rather sentimental "songs" which were set to orchestral sound by her friend and mentor, another local artist Alex Fung. She seems to enjoy herself thoroughly that evening, especially when she was accompanied by some of her very "bourgeois" parents and church friends who called themselves "The Chorus of Angels" in the more overtly "religious" numbers. It's good that we got something other than the worked to death genre of Canto-pop in the local music: a breath of fresh air. The HKPO was conducted by Filipino conductor Gerard Salonga and in some numbers, Ivana had the help of her friends何秉舜 as pianist and a guitar and percussion band comprising Randy Chow, 何山, Feargus Chow, 李一丁 and Silver KO. It was an extremely varied program with some numbers which really sounded as if they were New Age church hymns and others which had a bit of rock feel to them but mostly the offering savor of a certain very "idealised",cocooned, ostensibly innocent, but a bit narcissistic and "sentimental" teenage world, in short a world of fantasy. To me, it's a fake and to that extent a dishonest and a very "unreal" world but I have little doubt that it may appeal to the needs and aspirations of a certain very "privileged" sector of our society, a world in which they move about in all types of seldom taken off "masks", drunk on its self-satisfied, and condescending generosity to the "underprivileged", convinced of their own "goodness" because they feel a certain disinfected "pity" towards that other world the true contact with which will send them into a fit. That's how I felt as I sat there listening to and watching the body language of the "performers" on the stage. Whatever the truth may be, I wish the sound engineer/technician knew much better when and how to manipulate his console so that if he could not enhance the sound, he could at least not ruin the music.
From pop the previous week, we move to Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and thence to America with Dvorak under the baton of American conductor Christopher Eschenbach who learned conducting from George Szell and Herbert von Karayan.
We had Dvorak's Carnival Overture. Eschenbach moved the cello and double bass from the usual right to the left of the stage, an energetic piece with idllyic rustic moments in which Dvorak indulged in his love of folk melodies from his native Bohemia. It's a piece which formed one of three which the composer called Nature, Life and Love. It's a piece full of boisterous country sound and joy which he wrote shortly after he was invited to be director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. I love the melody and the orchestration.I love the simple quiet but beautiful melody brought out by the woodwinds and by the string in the middle of the piece
This was followed by an all American work by its best loved composer, the inimitable George Gershwin. a jazz pianist who self-taught himself the elements of orchestration from a book and it turned out not at all badly: his Piano Concerto in F written in 1925 and premiered in New York the same year, a piece which he once thought should be named "New York Concerto" in honor of the city. Like all his works, the piece is full of the bustling and slightly jarring sound of the busy metropolis and of course, the jerky and energetic jazz rhythm in Gershwin's blood with its bluesy moods and swing. I don't know about how the others feel, to me the American piano soloist Tzimon Barto, technically excellent, somehow played his left hand rather too heavily and mechanically, losing that spontaneous swing which I think is the soul of jazz. The dynamic contrast between the softer and heavier notes also appear to be missing. I was slightly disappointed. Throughout his performance, I was thinking how Oscar Peterson would have tackled the concerto.
Then from America, we went back to Europe, to Dvorak's mentor Johannes Brahms. We had his Symphony No. 1, which took him more than 2 decades to write because after Beethoven's No. 9, Brahms was in mortal fear of making a wrong move before he thought he was ready. Although he completed the draft of the first 3 movement 10 years previously, Brahms did not write the final movement until 1876! But when it came out, it proved an instant success, which he truly deserves. When Brahms was younger, like Gershwin, he had to make a living playing the piano at the red light district every night. But if one is good, nothing can put one down.The music varies in mood between quiet suffering in the first, lyricism in the second, joy in the third and final explosion the fourth I love in particular that impossible tenderness and the beauty of the second movement. Brahms is always great on melody. I love Eschehbach's precision and absolute control of the orchestra and his interpretation which fully brings out the power in Brahm's music. Maybe his style is much better suited to the music of Brahms, than to that of Gershwin, in whose piece which he tends in my opinion to be a bit too heavy-handed and regimented, lacking that freedom which ought to be in Gershwin's music. Maybe it's a just a question of personality. We can really only be ourselves, often despite ourselves.
Last night it was different again. we had two composers who could not have been more different Mozart and Richard Strauss. We also had an American conductor, a young and very talented lady violinist called Karina Canellakis, which looks of Greek origin who was encouraged to turn to conductor by Sir Simon Rattle. I think his mentor did not make a wrong recommendation.
Our first piece of the evening was Mozart's Overture of the opera "The Abduction from the Sergli", written in 1782, his 14th opera, with elements of Turkish music which began to interest European at the time. It was a very lively, exotic and festive piece, perfectly suited as an opening piece.
This was followed by his very popular Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K, 219, the "Turkish", when Mozart again made use of certain elements of Turkish music, more specifically their rhythm. On the whole, the music is full of sun, fun and rustic joy but not without a certain Oriental boisterousness. As solo violinist we had Augustin Hadelich, who is technically very good. Canellakis treated the violin and the orchestra as if they were two independent parts, perhaps for the sake of stronger contrast but in the process a little of that natural spark in the flow of Mozart somehow got lost. As encore,Haldelich showed us what he could do on the violin with variation No 5 of one Paganini's themes. He is very good but in listening to him play Mozart I could not help thinking that he could have allowed himself slightly more freedom and focused less on technical precision and play with slightly more abandon to give us that spontaneous joy in the music the unflappable Mozart.
For the second half of the concert, we moved from classicism to late romanticism with Richard Strauss, a worshipper of Wagner's music. We had first his Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without Shadow): A Symphonic Fantasy and then his Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils. The first is re-hash of one of his previous operas in the form of a symphonic poem. This is the first time I heard this piece. According to the programme notes, "a woman without shadow" is supposed to refer to a woman who cannot bear any children. In this particular case, the opera tells the story of an Empress who sought the help of a sorceress through the incredible "exchange" of corporeal identity with a common woman who is able to bear children with "strange and disturbing apparitions and portents", a piece who imitates musically first the omens, grace, poise and finally the joys of full "womanhood".
The final piece stemmed from the popular play "Salomé" by the sophisticated Oscar Wilde about how princess Salomé bewitched her step father, King Herod with her "dance of the 7 veils" and demanded as reward the head of St. John the Baptist, upon whom she had a crush, in revenge for being spurned by her dream lover, a most dramatic tale. The symphonic poem is supposed to replay in music the seduction and its bloody conclusion.
In Canellakis, I find a another conductor who is really into the music. It tells by the way she conducts, the movement of her arms and fingers, the posture of her slim body, which is a performance all by itself as the music swings into the ups and downs and variations of different moods suggested by the score. She has excellent control of the HKPO, our truly professional world class orchestra and does full justice to Richard Strauss's dramatic and colorful music. Another very memorable evening indeed.