Friday, 24 May 2013

Making Time for Music

Russian-born pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy still full of energy
We just came back from a concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra inspired and excited by Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op.82 conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The program of three pieces were deftly chosen by maestro to generate a crescendo and climax by the end of the evening and the audience was in thrall with the performance.

Ashkenazy is 75 years old and still going strong. He comes to Hong Kong regularly, though the last time I saw him perform was over 10 years ago with an intimate piano recital that was mesmerizing even at that time.

While he doesn't play the piano live anymore, he does focus on recordings of him at the keyboard, though he admits he doesn't listen to them.

"I have no time for that," he says. "Time is very precious. I have very little time to listen to my own recordings. What's the point of doing that when I can't change anything that I don't like? So it's a waste of time."

He is also very efficient on the conductor's podium. Once he gets up there, he starts right away -- why wait? The opening piece, Don Juan, Op. 20 by Richard Strauss was romantic, a musical interpretation of Hungarian-born Nikolaus Lenau's unfinished poem about the Don's tireless search for the perfect woman.

It's carefree at first, amorous and light, but towards the end Don is confronted by the angry male relative of one of his conquests and meets his fatal end with an abrupt finish. My concentration dipped towards the end when I could hear a man behind me snoring. It got louder and louder, and then by the time he stopped, the piece had ended.

Soprano Camilla Tilling sang songs by Strauss
Next came Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling to sing Four Last Songs by Strauss with the orchestra. In 1894, the composer married soprano Pauline de Ahna. While they did not have an easy marriage, they could not bear to be apart from each other long. He died two days short of their 55th wedding anniversary, and she passed away eight months later.

Four Last Songs was supposed to be a gift to Pauline, but he never finished the last one. Each of them follow the progression of a human lifetime, similar to the four seasons. Tilling's voice was soft and sweet, though she seemed restrained in the beginning and opened up by the third song to give more depth in her voice.

The audience was so enamoured by her that she finally did an encore where she had no hesitation whatsoever and gave a delightful performance.

After the intermission we were back for Sibelius. I was concerned it would be similar to the one the Hong Kong Sinfonietta performed last Saturday (Symphony No. 2 in D, Op.43) a piece that while impressive, never seemed to end.

But Ashkenazy, ever mindful of time, cut to the chase with a rousing end. He was very particular about his conducting instructions and they resulted in a range of volumes, textures and colours in the piece. By the end the audience was eating out of his hand even though he didn't get caught up in all the admiration; he's not jaded, but rather wants to go back to his hotel and rest!

He pumped both fists in the air, pleased with the orchestra and many times singled out the various soloists.

If you missed him this time around not to worry -- Ashkenazy is already scheduled to come back to Hong Kong next April with cellist Sol Gabetta.

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