Thursday, 8 March 2018

Russian Soft Power through Music

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov at the piano
Tonight I attended a Hong Kong Arts Festival concert by the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov" -- a mouthful to pronounce, but a fantastic performance made even better by the fun encore at the end.

The State Orchestra is one of the oldest symphonic ensembles in Russia, formed in 1936 and it was granted the honorary title of "Academic" in 1972, while "Evgeny Svetlanov" was tacked on as he was the longest serving music director for 35 years.

The Russian State Orchestra performed in Hong Kong
And as a soft power initiative, the program featured Russian composers of course -- Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

But first Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op 1 (1917 version) performed by pianist Denis Matsuev. I sat on the right side of the stage so I was unable to watch him playing at the keys, but he gave a solid performance. The first movement was so exciting for the audience that many couldn't help themselves and clap!

It's the 1917 version, as Rachmaninov had written his first piano concerto when he was 18, but revised it in 1917 as the Bolshevik Revolution was happening.

The music started with a dramatic flourish and overall had a romantic feel, and Matsuev had ample chances to show off his technical skills. Meanwhile the orchestra was robust, in particular the percussion with up to four musicians playing drums, xylophone, triangle and tambourine.

The finish culminated into quite the flourish. Conductor Kristjan Jarvi doesn't like to break too long between movements, going one after the other and before you know it, the piece is over.

Denis Matsuev is considered a Rachmaninov expert
After a very short break Matsuev and Jarvi returned to the stage for Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 by Rachmaninov. It is considered a piece that helped the composer work his way out of a long episode of depression caused by a disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897.

Apparently the Piano Concerto No 2 helped cure his creative block and restored his confidence, and it was well received. Unlike the first piano concerto, this one starts off very quiet and quickly builds into big chords that signal the tolling of bells.

More fingers flying over the keys continue and at one point Matsuev gets a short break that he uses to wipe his brow. The second movement is recognizable and perhaps a tribute to Tchaikovsky.

At the end a guy two rows in front of me jumped up and clapped and would not sit down until Matsuev returned to give a short encore. It's quite fitting this pianist is performing here -- he is considered a Rachmaninov expert, having collaborated with the Sergei Rachmaninov Foundation established by the composer's grandson. Matsuev was even invited to play on Rachmaninov's piano in his home in Lucerne. Talk about goosebumps.

Kristjan Jarvi is an energetic conductor on stage
Following the intermission, the orchestra reassembled to perform Stravinsky's The Firebird (1945 Suite). Conductor Jarvi practically danced on the podium and it was a lively performance throughout, hardly pausing very long between movements.

The music is meant to complement the ballet The Firebird that has a good-versus-evil plot based on Russian sources. It alternates between heavy percussion clashes and pastoral light melodies.

When the performance was over, the audience was excited and clapping loudly, but many of the orchestra members stood stony faced -- were they told not to show their emotions? It seemed strange for them not to want to at least crack a smile that their performance for the evening was over?

Meanwhile conductor Jarvi was very happy and the orchestra played a fun encore -- was it Strauss? And encouraged the audience to clap along and sing ho ho ho. We clapped some more, but Jarvi put his two hands together and cocked his head as if motioning to want to sleep so that was the end of that.

Denis Matsuev, piano
Kristjan Jarvi, conductor
State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov"
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op 1 (1917 version)

Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird (1945 Suite)

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