Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Dmitri Jurowski, conductor; Sol Gabetta, cello. May 14, 2011.

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Balcony (Seat I104, HK$320).

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1896) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Symphony No. 15 in A, Op. 141 (1971) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).

I was walking around in Causeway Bay yesterday and decided to see if there was anything interesting going on in the Classical music scene. So I went into Tom Lee and found this brochure on “Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.” I didn’t know the cellist, but the name “Jurowski” caught my attention. I see the name in Avery Fisher Hall a lot, but had never heard a concert by him, so I decided to go with it. After I bought the ticket, I realized that it was Vladimir whose name is all over town (New York City in this case) instead of Dmitri. Subsequent “research” (i.e., google search) led to the realization that Vladimir and Dmitri are brothers, and that their father Mikhail was also a conductor. (Thus the full name of Dmitri Mikhailovich Jurowski.) Vladimir is seven years older (born 1972) and, according to Wikipedia, took Dmitri to Germany in 1990. There is little mention of Vladimir in the writeup in today’s program, sibling rivalry, or too much of a shadow to live under, perhaps?

I thought the last time I heard the Dvorak concerto was the formidable combination of Yo-yo Ma, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Turns out that wasn't the case (it was a Schumann concerto), and I actually couldn’t find any blog entry on this concerto. Nonetheless I was quite familiar with it, perhaps due to the many singable melodies in the piece. With that in mind, my imagination kind of dictated how a performance of this concerto should sound, and naturally tonight’s performance didn’t live close to that perception.

The concerto consists of three movements and lasts about 40 minutes. Brahms, who was one of Dvorak’s first admirers, famously said he would have written one had he known such great composition could be written. Indeed it is a beautiful work, if a bit on the simple side.

The first movement (Allegro) basically consisted of two themes with intervening development. It actually sounded very good, the cello coming across beautifully. The second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) was the most complex of the three movements, most of the time the lines were clean, but the timpani sounded muddled at times. The last movement (Finale: Allegro moderato) dragged on a bit, and the concertmaster had a solo passage that wasn’t particularly well-done. Dvorak rewrote the ending to reflect the sadness of mourning his sister’s death.

While the performance was generally good, and the cellist showed quite a bit of brilliance, there was something missing. One notable issue was the lack of coordination between the cellist and the orchestra. The latter seemed to be more of an accompaniment than an equal partner. The give and take between the soloist and the orchestra wasn’t consistent. Nonetheless, this is Dvorak, and any reasonable performance would be enjoyable.

Gabetta played an encore whose name I didn’t get. It was not so much a virtuoso piece (there were enough double stops and harmonics) as it was to showcase what sounds one could make with the cello. At some point she sang along (in harmony) with the playing. Interesting, but she should keep her regular job. The piece had potential: I am sure I would appreciate it more if I get to listen to it again.

Argentine-born Gabetta is quite young, but has been on the scene since 2004. She plays the "rare and precious" cello by G. B. Guadagnini from 1759. (I am writing this down for the record.)

The Program Notes describes this concert as one of endings. Dvorak’s was his last concerto, and Shostakovich’s was his last symphony. Shostakovich suffered from various diseases and indeed had a second heart attack soon after completing this, his last symphony. The symphony was also about 40 minutes long. However, the symphony wasn’t particular sad or macabre.

This symphony is what I would call a percussionist’s dream, listed in the instrumentation are: timpani, celesta, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, vibraphone, snare drum, castanets, woodblocks, and tam-tam. I think they missed the cymbals. And they had about five percussionist in addition to the timpani player.

The program notes says the London premiere of the piece drew laughter from the audience due to its frequent and often bizarre musical quotations. I would call them interesting, but not funny or bizarre. The first movement (Allegretto) had five references to the William Tell Overture, which Shostakovich claimed to be his first musical memory. There was quite a bit of violin solo also, and I have to say the concertmaster redeemed himself (he is actually the first associate concertmaster, there being no concertmaster listed in the roster). He figured prominently in this work, and generally did very well. Mention must also be made of the trombone, the playing was simply exquisite. The second movement (Adagio) is described as the emotional center of the symphony, and contained references to the 11th and 14th symphonies. Well, I do not know those two symphonies. It ended with a xylophone solo. The bassoons started the third movement (Allegretto) without pause, and it was rather short. The last movement (Adagio) began with a 3-note Wagner Ring Leitmotif which I recognized (or it is so simple that I am sure it was in the Ring) but didn’t know was called “fate.” At this point the orchestra seemed to have lost some of the energy of the earlier movements. You could anticipate the ending when the percussionists all started to move into position. Again I didn’t know the ending passage which was derived from the fourth symphony; but it was interesting that it was withheld by Shostakovich for 25 or so years due to its lack of political correctness.

The overall piece sounded much simpler than I expected, and Shostakovich – at least in this symphony – dished out solo lines to nearly all of the sections. Dmitri Jurowski was quite economical in his movements, but managed to elicit a good performance, by and large, from the players. His brother’s place in the musical scene seems secure, I wonder how it would turn out for him.

As to the orchestra, I am impressed with how they make Shostakovich look easy. Perhaps de Waart really has done something with the group. I hope whoever follows him will be equally effective.

Oh, there is none of this business of the concertmaster (and sometimes section leaders) excusing himself when there is a soloist. And it worked well.

I am glad I went. By the time I got back to Taipo, it was 11 pm.

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