Friday, 21 October 2016

Ray Chen - a great ambassador for music

The 27-year old violinist Ray Chen pranced on the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) concert-hall stage. As he took a brief break during the rehearsal of the tutti parts of the 3rd movement Rondo: Allegro of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, he seemed relaxed but was poised like tiger waiting to pounce for his next entry.

After a solid 45 minutes of rehearsing this movement, conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy and Chen seemed pleased with their efforts and the rehearsal with the MPO drew to a close, eliciting a warm and sustained round of applause from the members of the orchestra. Ever the perfectionist, Chen stays back on the stage to practise the complex first movement cadenza alone before we are able to meet for the interview.

Chen is pleasantly surprised with the lovely acoustics of DFP concert hall, this being his first visit to Malaysia - a country of very warm people in his opinion. He is to present Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a masterwork and key staple of the repertoire with the MPO on 21 and 22 October.

I ask him about the Olympian Beethoven concerto that he would be presenting. "The Beethoven concerto is very different from the earlier violin concertos of Mozart say. The Mozart concertos are generally very light and happy, but the Beethoven has a solidness and gravitas as well as light and shade whilst respecting the earlier composers' tradition for violin concertos," says Chen.

Tradition also plays another part in what Chen will do with the Beethoven concerto in Kuala Lumpur. He will be using the Leopold Auer cadenzas in all the 3 movements. Chen's teacher at the Curtis Institute, Aaron Rosand was a student of Efrem Zimbalist, who was in turn a pupil of the famed Russian teacher Leopold Auer, who also taught Jascha Heifetz. According to Chen, the cadenzas that he will be playing are a derivative of the Auer-Heifetz-Rosand version.

Another interesting link back to tradition is that Chen now plays the 1715 Joseph Joachim Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. Coincidentally, it was the 13-year old Joachim who revived the Beethoven Violin Concerto in London in 1844 after much neglect in the composer's lifetime.

Chen's current two main musical priorities lie in maintaining his concertizing at the key musical centres of the world at a very high professional level as well as engaging the younger generation of music lovers and fans via social media. Spreading the love of classical music and reaching out is Chen's prime passion and musical mission.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ashkenazy's riveting Russian programme

It was very good to welcome maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy back to the MPO with a delightful and colourful Russian programme on 1 October 2016. The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, a rich and lively work despite its roots in orthodox plainchant. Written just after the Capriccio espagnol and Scheherezade, it shares the fabulous colourful orchestration that makes those works favourites in the concert hall. It served as a great calling card for the MPO; the strings producing a clear sound and the brass relishing every moment in the spotlight.

Ashkenazy’s pacing in the overture was slightly sluggish and the various sections did not gel together as well as they should. Special mention should go to the MPO leader Peter Danis, principal cellist Csaba Koros and flutist Hristo Dobrinov who were absolutely extraordinary in their ravishing solos.

For Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Ashkenazy used a reduced-size orchestra, which lent a chamber-music feeling to this charming work, with its consciously mid-18th century theme. The variations never stray far from the tune, even when the soloist plays intricate filigree of the utmost virtuosity.

Li-Wei Qin and Ashkenazy proved excellent collaborators. They seemed in sync with each other's musical ideas. Variation III, with its long legato lines, and the mournful Variation VI were especially effective. Variation V, with its mini-cadenzas, showed Li-Wei Qin’s technical prowess with unswerving sweetness of tone and security of intonation. The perpetual motion of the final variation and coda earned the performers a long and well-deserved ovation. Li-Wei Qin's deliciously played encore of Piatigorsky's arrangement of Prokofiev's March Op 65 for solo cello from "Music for children" was in keeping with a lovely Russian night out.

The Shostakovitch 8th Symphony contrasts starkly with the famous 7th in that it is much darker and oppressive. In fact, there are many parallels between the 8th and the popular 5th Symphony, in that they share certain features, such as structure, melodic development, and execution. The major difference is that the 8th is very much larger in scale, a huge behemoth that reflects the long weariness of the participants in the war.

Ashkenazy was in full control of the orchestra, although there were a few raggedy moments at some sections. Speeds were a touch slower than those performed under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky, the original dedicatee of the symphony - particularly in the first two movements. However, by the third piston-like rumble of the third movement, they had got into the full swing, giving an interpretation that was suitably acerbic.

The flute/piccolo was a touch wobbly and unsure at certain points of the second movement, as were the trumpets and the horns. Meanwhile, the lower strings and violas were precise, whereas the main body of strings struggled slightly to come to grips with the work in the first movement. However, Ashkenazy's magnetism and intellectual explanations did seem to have a positive effect on the playing. By the end, all the musicians were as physically and emotionally exhausted as the audience, which bodes well as an interpretation for such a stark and gloomy piece.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

A good start to the new MPO season

The first serious concert of the 2016-7 MPO season featured the Clare College Choir, Cambridge under their music director Graham Ross on 17 September 2016. The programme was innovative and inspiring as the familiar Fauré Requiem and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture were cleverly juxtaposed with Dukas’ Fanfare from La Péri, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

In the French first half of the concert, the evening got off to a rousing start with the fanfare from the ballet La Péri (The Fairy) by Dukas about Prince Iskender’s encounter with a fairy, from whom he steals the flower of immortality. Dukas added the fanfare shortly before the ballet’s première. Featuring only the brass section of the MPO, the work is an uplifting three minutes of exultant pomp and circumstance, fully reflecting the regal grandeur of a princely caravan procession.

After the Dukas, the Clare College Choir joined the MPO for a premiere performance of the 1893 version of Fauré’s Requiem at the DFP. The opening to the Introit and Kyrie was ethereal and sustained by the choir with deep sonorities that generated a calm atmosphere. Baritone Stephen Matthews gave an assured rendition in the Offertoire, which was followed by the choir’s ethereal response.

The Sanctus was lovingly rendered. However, some ensemble problems with the harp and the solo violinist Peter Danis intruded on this gentle rocking movement. Soprano Alice Halstead grew into the breath-defying Pie Jesu as the movement progressed. Impeccable control at the end led to an appreciative hush before proceedings resumed with the Agnus Dei.

Stephen Matthews again shone in Libera me, before the combination of crystal clear female voices, harp and organ was particularly delightful in the closing and angelic In Paradisum movement. The choir’s phrasing, diction and projection were all quite impressive under Ross’ direction.

After the interval, we heard Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man that jolted the audience to attention with its violent drumbeats and powerful brass melodies that unfolded regally under Ross' baton.

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is an exuberant and challenging work, particularly the first part in infectious 7/4 time. The MPO and Clare College Choir began with exciting dissonant chords whilst the percussion players kept busy. The Clare College Choir and soloists Alice Halstead, Henrietta Box, Alexander Porteous and Stephen Matthews were on splendid form throughout this lively work.

Written to commemorate the defence of Moscow against Napoleon’s onslaught in the Battle of Borodino, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture borrows folk and nationalistic sources to concoct a programmatic melee of sadness, belligerence and triumph. Fragments of “God Save The Czar”, “La Marseillaise” and a battle hymn alternate with two bouts of romantic outpouring, and it leads to an explosion replete with simulated cannon shots. As church bells announce the retreat of French troops, there is a triumphant Russian conclusion.

This MPO performance of 1812 was solid and somewhat exciting, and the incorporation of choral parts to the opening, middle and ending of the piece was certainly compelling. The central fugato section revealed a more polite rather than vigorous manner of the first and second violins tussling away. The recorded cannon shots sounded almost too resonant, whilst the massed strings of the MPO sounded too puny for a massive Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun to watch this choral version of 1812 under Ross' steady musical direction.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Great artists grace a new 2016-17 MPO season

The new Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) season at the DFP Hall promises many musical delights. The new season is a testament to the very innovative and interesting programming led by the General Manager of the MPO, Timothy Tsukamoto, who is doing a superlative job which has resulted in some very delightful premieres for the coming concerts for 2016-17.

The choir of Clare College, Cambridge under its conductor Graham Ross kick off the season with a concert of Fauré's Requiem, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture in a choral version.

Famous maestros like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Roberto Abbado are the star attractions of the season. A key concert highlight is of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture (a premiere), Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations (with cellist Li-Wei-Qin) and Shostakovich's epic Symphony No 8 under maestro Ashkenazy.

Roberto Abbado offers two diverse programmes. One programme features an Italian theme with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, Paganini's Violin Concerto No 5 (yet another premiere, with soloist Sergei Krylov), Berio-Boccherini's Ritirata notturna di Madrid and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. The other concert offering consists of extracts from Wagner's Parsifal and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

There are also some excellent violinists who will perform mainly standard violin concerto repertoire like the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The violinists are the 27-year old Ray Chen in the Beethoven, Kolja Blacher in the Brahms and Nemanja Radulovic in the Tchaikovsky.

Mahler also graces the season with performances of the First Symphony and songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (yet another premiere at the DFP Hall), with German baritone Matthias Goerne and conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. Maestro Yoel Gamzou returns this season with his very own completion of Mahler's Tenth Symphony after a very successful debut here in Mahler's Ninth Symphony earlier in 2016.

Popular piano works like the Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven's Fourth piano concertos are also to be heard this season, with soloists Vadim Kholodenko (Grieg), David Fray (Schumann) and Stephen Hough (Beethoven). Perennial local pianist Tengku Irfan performs Bartok's Second Piano Concerto in a colourful programme, led by one of the MPO's new resident conductors, Harish Shankar.

Other interesting musical fare are concerts of JS Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (also another premiere for the DFP), with 3 different conductors - Radek Baborak, Benjamin Bayl and Maurice Steger. Baborak also plays Glière's romantic Horn Concerto and leads the MPO in Dvorak's epic Seventh Symphony.

The 2016-17 MPO season promises many concerts of varied fare, with great artists in wonderful repertoire. For further information, visit or call (03) 2331 7007 or 2331 7008.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Buniatishvili’s brilliant Beethoven in Lucerne

After the superb Munich concert, we headed to Lucerne for the final leg of our musical tour. The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, James Gaffigan and Khatia Buniatishvili performed at the KKL (Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern) concert hall on 8 June.

This concert opened with Weber’s lively overture from Euryanthe. Chief conductor Gaffigan set the orchestra off at a cracking pace, creating an upbeat mood throughout the evening.

Although the opera is rarely heard in its entirety, the overture encapsulates the hero’s two great themes, with the drama of martial music from woodwind and brass giving way to the lyrical eloquence of legato strings. An exuberant final flourish conveyed a feeling of triumph, which set the audience up nicely for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C major.

Since Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 starts with a long orchestral ritornello, Buniatishvili fans were made to wait a while before her first notes. This gave the audience a chance to appreciate some of the exceptional qualities of the Lucerne SO. The strings produce the clear and crisp sound of a chamber orchestra, while giving each phrase a clearly defined dynamic contour.

When Buniatishvili joined in, her running passages were played with classical refinement and delicacy, contrasting with the power that she can muster when needed. She showed technical ability out of the very top drawer, playing Beethoven’s long rippling runs with perfect and chiselled precision and then handing over to the orchestra with resolute power. Buniatishvili dazzled in the first movement cadenza while retaining the elegance when needed.

The Lucerne SO delicately accompanied the soloist in her beautiful second movement melodies and she repaid the compliment when they took over the tune. The high jinks of the rondo theme in the final movement, first stated by the piano alone, then taken up by the orchestra, proved a rousing conclusion of a very stylish and immensely enjoyable performance.

After long and sustained applause, Buniatishvili rewarded the audience with a moving interpretation of Debussy’s Clair de lune from his Suite bergamasque.

Gaffigan led a performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony that was subtly varied, with moments of melody and counterpoint, clarified orchestral textures, heighted rhythmic tension and release in the flute solo of the first movement. In the second movement, a gentle body of lovely string tone cushioned the exquisite cor anglais solo.

The third movement had a sense of urgency, but with relaxation in the slower middle section. In the last movement, Dvořák ties the whole symphony together, musically and dramatically. This performance was impassioned, with moments of utmost serenity.

It may be hard to imagine calling a performance of a warhorse like the New World Symphony thrilling, but James Gaffigan and the Lucerne SO made it so this time. It was apparent to the audience as well, with the conductor and orchestra being given a well-deserved and extended ovation and many curtain calls.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Zimmermann’s coruscating Tchaikovsky, Kirill Petrenko’s superb Richard Strauss

The next concert I watched in Munich was the major highlight of my European trip. This was a sold out event by the Bavarian State Orchestra under its general music director, Kirill Petrenko at the National Theatre on 6 June.

There were just two works on the programme, which were Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann and the rarely played Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss.

Zimmermann, sporting his newly loaned 1727 "Général Dupont" ex-Grumiaux Stradivarius, gave a coruscating interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with some Leopold Auer variants replacing the score in places. He played with passionate commitment and searching beauty with endless and subtle variety of nuances and tone.

Every melodic phrase was carefully shaped; if repeated, it was shaped afresh. The virtuoso high-speed scales and passagework had a frenetic and demonic quality whilst the more tender passages were breathtakingly hushed and intense. Burnished lower notes gave way to nut-brown sweetness and lyrical intensity at the top range.

The first movement cadenza was a remarkable piece of storytelling, which flowed into the principal flutist’s lovingly lyrical entry to blend with Zimmermann’s gentle trills at the end of the cadenza. Petrenko made the mundane orchestral tutti passages sound alive and freshly minted.

The second movement ("Canzonetta") was spellbinding and achieved a chamber music-like intimacy particularly in the exchange between the solo violin and clarinet.

The finale was a vivacious and exhilarating Cossack dance featuring exciting tempo changes. Despite being fast and frenzied, the rhythms were precise and alive as Zimmermann, the BSO and Petrenko brought the concerto to a most thrilling close.

After many curtain calls, Zimmermann obliged the audience with a most unusual encore. This was not the typical solo Bach or Paganini, but Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op 23 No 5 in G minor transcribed from the piano version for solo violin by Ernst Schliephake who dedicated it to Ruggiero Ricci for his 75th birthday.

This was truly an astounding encore piece as the transcription to a four-fingered solo violin part from a ten-fingered piano part was stunning in Zimmermann’s near–perfect execution.

In the second half, we heard a most glorious account of Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica by Petrenko. Sinfonia Domestica in not generally in the list of popular Richard Strauss compositions (Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben and Eine Alpensinfonie for example).

When presenting one of Richard Strauss’ lesser-known tone poems, it helps to have one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters in Petrenko in total command of an orchestra on absolutely top form.

The Bavarian State Orchestra strings led by concertmaster David Schultheiss were at their sumptuous best in the central love scene. Petrenko encouraged a glorious and brilliantly majestic tutti sound from the orchestra both here and in Strauss’ grandiloquent coda. I found myself marvelling at the spectacle of Strauss’ riotously colourful score, as revealed by Petrenko, who will be the next Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director from 2019.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Wonderful jazz from Leonid Chizhik & Jeff Cascaro

We left Basel by direct train to Munich after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert the next morning. The scenery en route to Munich was particularly lovely, especially near the Lake Constance area.

An unplanned jazz concert on our summer trip that we watched in Munich was by Leonid Chizhik (piano) and Jeff Cascaro (voice and trumpet). The concert was held in the Kleines Theatre in a leafy Munich suburb called Haar.

Chizhik and Cascaro put on a show entitled "Broadway for Two". This was 2-hour show with a short intermission. This was an amazing jazz concert, which was entirely improvised and the two musicians did not have any performing score.

Chizhik (at 69 years old) performed with lots of energy at the piano, whilst Cascaro occasionally played the trumpet as he took a break from singing the American standards.

Daniil Trifonov shines in Basel

My 2016 summer holidays began in Basel with a concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) under its chief conductor Manfred Honeck and guest soloist Daniil Trifonov on 31 May. The concert was organized by the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft (AMG) Basel and the performance was part of their World Orchestra series.

The concert venue was the MusikSaal at the StadtCasino, Basel. The concert attracted a full house and this unfortunately caused the 1,400-seat hall to be overly packed, as the air-conditioning could not keep up with the large audience.

Haydn's Symphony 93 in D major was the opening work. This symphony was played in the traditional symphonic manner, with no apologies to the historically informed manner of performance often favoured these days.

Honeck’s judicious choice of speeds allowed the PSO to articulate Haydn’s phrases well, without garbling in the first movement. One significant moment in the symphony is the bassoon fortissimo “fart” in the second movement. The PSO principal bassoonist executed this to perfection.

Lilting dance rhythms graced the third Minuet movement, whilst slinky and upbeat playing brought the final fourth movement to a spirited ending.

Next, the amazing Daniil Trifonov emerged to perform Liszt's First Piano Concerto. After a slightly fluffed start in his first cadenza of furious octaves due to an over-enthusiastically swift opening by maestro Honeck, Trifonov recovered well to enchant us with a most poetic as well as virtuoso rendition.

The variation in mood through the work is astounding, shifting from light, playful and impish to the full grandeur of arpeggios that traverse the whole keyboard. It is obvious that Trifonov was up to the task, remaining fully in control in his trademark fashion.

Regardless of Liszt’s impetuous technical demands, Trifonov delivered, executing delicate exquisite runs, octaves and trills of great length, whilst producing a tone of luminous quality. After long and sustained applause, Trifonov gave a gorgeously played encore in the shape of Medtner’s Fairy Tale Op 24 No 3.

In the second half, Honeck and the PSO gave us a reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that was beautifully proportioned. In the opening movement, the main theme soared with idiomatic rubato. The gentle lilting 5/4-waltz movement provided gentle contrast to the passionate first movement. The scherzo, taken at a blistering pace, was a superb display of orchestral power and virtuosity. The mournful finale was the dramatic heart of the work.

The PSO and Honeck gave two delightful encores in the shape of the Panorama from Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and the Galop from Masquerade Suite by Khachaturian.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Gamzou’s extraordinary Mahler 9

Mahler’s Ninth is no ordinary piece for armchair or concert hall listening. This work in particular is fatally imbued with themes of his own approaching demise, constantly speaking of farewells that are loving and fervent as well as admiration for that which is left behind. Bitterness is also in abundance.

Encouraged by a friend who attended Yoel Gamzou’s MPO rehearsal as well as his concert on 23 January 2016, I sacrificed my Sunday afternoon nap on 24 January to watch an amazing performance of Mahler’s Ninth.

The concert opened with Mahler’s Five Rückert Lieder, warmly sung by the Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot. The MPO and Gamzou accompanied Szot discreetly.

Having being weaned on Herbert von Karajan’s award-winning DG live Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra recording from 1982, I found it very interesting that 28-year old Gamzou’s interpretation of the symphony managed to trump Karajan's reading in places and convince me of this young conductor's talent for Mahler’s music and very intimate knowledge of a piece which some conductors would not even touch at 50 years old.

The first movement (Andante comodo) was fully of intensity and beauty, played with secure technical command and with vivid characterisation. The second movement (Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers) was faster than usual, as Gamzou drove the MPO to great heights of virtuosity.

The Rondo Burlesque: Allegro assai was waspish at a fast pace and the MPO rendered this movement with heart stopping virtuosity too.

In the final Adagio, the collective MPO played well but lacked the last ounce of spirituality. At the end of the movement, a member of the audience rudely broke the spell of “dying away” (ersterbend) by clapping way too soon.

I'd be first in the ticket queue if Gamzou were invited back to conduct more Mahler with the MPO. He's a conductor who really studies the scores intently, conducts with clarity and balances the complex Mahlerian strands and textures perfectly.