Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hong Kong Philharmonic - Edo de Waart, conductor. April 7, 2012.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Stalls 1 (Seat G47, HK$320).

Iris Devoilee (2002) by Chen Qigang (b. 1951).
Parsifal - an orchestral quest (arr. Henk de Vlieger, 1993) by Wagner (1813-1883).

This is the first of a series of three concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the banner “Farewell to Edo" to say goodbye to Edo de Waart who has led the orchestra since 2004.  As I said before, HKPO has transformed itself into a great orchestra and undoubtedly de Waart deserves a lot of the credit.  From what I can tell, he always expected a lot from his musicians, and they delivered.  Perhaps fittingly for the tribute, there are no “easy” pieces in the programs, starting with what we heard at tonight’s concert.  I guess "Visions Unveiled" can be taken to mean how de Waart introduced his personal vision to the orchestra during the early years.  Next week’s program is titled “Dream Harmonies” and features Strauss’s Don Quixote and Adams’s Harmonielehre.  Beethoven’s Ninth will be on the “Moment of Farewell” program.

Of course I had never heard either piece before.  For this concert we also had Tim, Whitney, Stephen, Ruth, Wally and Ling with us.  I wasn’t sure how the music would go over, and kept warning them about Wagner’s opera being inscrutable and long.  And I didn’t know what to expect of the piece by Chen Qigang (陳其鋼).

Chen was born in Shanghai and studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.  He then went off to Paris to study under Olivier Messiaen, eventually as a private student.  One of his claims to international fame was the ballet Raise the Red Lantern (which came after the movie.)  The title of tonight’s piece (Iris Unveiled) is translated into Butterflies Love Flowers in Chinese (蝶戀花) and was originally called Ode to Woman.  If you read the descriptions of the different movements, you would actually think the origanl title is more appropriate: Ingenious, Chaste, Libertine, Sensitive, Tender, Jealous, Melancholic, Hysterical, and Voluptuous.  The Chinese descriptions don’t exactly match the English, but frankly it would be futile for me to decide if - for instance - the second movement should be titled “chaste” or “shy’ (which is the term used in the Chinese program.)

The composition uses a traditional western orchestra, but except for the soprano Chen Xiaoduo, the other five soloists use either Chinese instruments (Erhu by Wang Nan, Pipa by Li Jia, and Zheng by Chang Jing) or Chinese-style singing (Soprano II and Qingyi Meng Meng.)  Except for the Pipa which produces a very soft sound, the balance between the soloists and the orchestra worked surprisingly well.  This applies to how well the different styles blended together also.  With the movements clearly labeled, it was easy to follow the different moods explored by the music.  In that regard it was rewarding.

The piece was (per the Program) premiered in Paris “with enormous success,” and was played (at least) twice by the HKPO.  Beyond that I wonder how often it has been performed.

Henk de Vlieger (b. 1953) was a percussionist at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra during 1987 to 2002, during which time de Waart was the Music Director.  He has adapted four of Wagner’s operas into symphonies, and Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera.

Over the years, I have actually heard quite a few of Wagner’s operas (Ring, Tristan & Isolde, and The Flying Dutchman) and have some appreciation of his music.  Yet I had no idea what Parsifal was like except it was quite solemn.  Today’s program describes the opera as set in a Spanish castle where the Knights of the Grail guard both the Holy Grail and the spear with which Christ was wounded when crucified.  De Vlieger’s adaption has seven sections played without pause: Vorspiel, Parsifal, Die Gralsritter I, Die Blumenmadchen, Karfreitagszauber, Die Gralsritter II, and Nachspiel.

To the annotator’s credit, we had a very good (and short) description of the music and could by-and-large follow the movements as they unfolded.  The solemnity of the story came through, and the orchestra’s performance provided the necessary drama as I tried to imagine what was happening.  Certainly my curiosity about the opera (which is five hours long, with intermissions) is raised and would definitely try to see it if possible.

The applause was quite enthusiastic (by Hong Kong audience standards) and deservedly so.  In the insert one reads de Waart’s having conducted 203 concerts with over 200,000 in attendance.  That works out to a paltry 1,000 or so per performance.  Indeed there were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium tonight.

HKPO may or may not be a world-class orchestra, but it certainly doesn’t have a world-class audience.  It deserves much better than that.

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