Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Osmo Vanska, conductor; Trey Lee, Cello. December 9, 2006.

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Stall 2, Seat HH31. (HK $200)

Program – Sounds of Nature
Cantus Arcticus, concerto for birds and orchestra (1972) by Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) by Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, Pastoral (1808) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

David & Ruby, who were visiting Hong Kong the same time we were, suggested we attend a concert. Joining us were Jane and Ka Shi. I have never been inside the Cultural Center, and was surprised at the intimacy of the small auditorium. We were seated quite close to the stage, with a good view of the artists.

The program started with a piece by a composer I had never heard of. It was in three movements. There was extensive use of recorded bird songs in all three movements. I wonder if the songs were synchronized down to the beat with the orchestra: that would mean the tape dictates how fast the music is played, which I guess no self-respecting conductor will allow. The piece does not have the rich texture one usually finds with modern music. It was interesting, but quite forgettable.

The Cellist Trey Lee graduated from Harvard with an economics degree. He looks younger than his biography would indicate. Both his technique and intonation seemed excellent – he didn’t seem to need to struggle at all with some of the more difficult passages. However, there was no dynamic range, the whole piece was played through at mf. David thinks it is the instrument; I say get a new instrument. The piece was performed without evoking much emotion despite the program notes talking about a very sad ending.

Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony is always enjoyable. One thing about the program notes: they are like a step-by-step guide for the music, very useful for the uninitiated (above remark about Elgar notwithstanding). The notes talk about the oboe being hesitant (3rd movement) by design, which is something I hadn’t realized before. However, I didn’t catch the part about the bassoon having only three notes but still had trouble. There were very few miscues, although one would expect Beethoven in any orchestra’s standard repertoire. The dynamics of the orchestra were good.

The conductor, who among other appointments is with the Minnesota Symphony, must have strong knees since he crouched down a lot. At times he was over-emotive. Many conductors put down their batons for certain passages (usually slow), but he overdid it in my opinion.

A narrator came out before the Elgar and Beethoven pieces to talk about the music. I have no idea why that was necessary since the detailed program notes are in English and Chinese. And he didn’t say much. Strange ritual indeed.

One word about the composition of the orchestra. The string players are predominantly Asian (mostly Chinese), but the woodwind and brass sections are still 80% (or higher) Caucasian. I wonder why. Perhaps the turnover in those sections is much slower, or not as many Chinese take to those instruments?

All in all an enjoyable evening undoubtedly helped by lowered expectations.