Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Episode 6: Bach, Bruckner, Strauss, and Pickett

It was only the second weekend in Macau when Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony held back-to-back sold out concerts to conclude the Hong Kong Arts Festival. A fully German program of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert one night, and Mahler and Bruckner the night after. A couple seats were to be had at the tune of $880 HKD ($140 USD).

I didn't go. That Saturday night, instead of throwing down an equivalent of Franklin and two Jacksons in Asia, I went to a free concert of the Macao Orchestra. Since I had no idea of the professionality of the organization, I went to a concert anyway. Little did I know Macau financially supports the arts. The church was packed full. It was at St. Dominic's Church in the heart of Senado Square, known to the locals as San Malo, in the old Portugese side of the Macau Peninsula.

Cathedrals in Sound
Saturday, 3 March 2012, 20:00
St. Dominic's Church

Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major
    • Allegro moderato
    • Adagio (Sehr Feierlich und sehr langsam)
    • Scherzo (Sehr schnell)
    • Finale (Bewegt, doch nicht schnell)
Liu Jia, Conductor

The church looked like any of the other churches of what I'd imagine a Portuguese church would look like. Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring was properly played in the Catholic church. Or was it improperly, since Bach was Lutheran? It was far too little an olive oil and vinaigrette salad appetizer for the Bruckner 7 Filet Mignon entrée but I couldn't complain on a free concert and the previously filling Portuguese dinner, a stew of beans, beef or pork, and steamed vegetables & potatoes.
Portuguese Feijoada. Favorite dish so far.
Bruckner has little stake in my musical intellect. Having only read about his symphonic music, listening to his choral music over the summer is top-shelf VSOP brandy. Anything comes with time and tonight was the night to savor my first Bruckner Symphony. Many compare Bruckner to Mahler, even to the point of idol worship. At first it was cool, but then everyone jumped on the train. Don't get me wrong, I still absolutely admire his music as much as the no. 1 Mahler fan, though I don't like to proclaim it. Having said that, if one were to compare Mahler with Bruckner, it would be through their common denominators: their symphonies. 

To put some perspective on Bruckner:

1) He lived 1824-1896 which places him almost identically to Brahms; and he is very much Brahmsian. All his symphonies are classically 4 movements and end much like all of Brahms' Symphonies- all ending tutti in one thunderous chord. Therefore, it'd be unrealistic to compare Mahler and Bruckner as musical twins simply because of their age difference. But people like to do that.

2) The man wrote 9 symphonies just like Mahler. He despised what is now dubbed "Symphony No. 0." So he we technically wrote 10. Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde was a symphonic tone poem so Mahler too wrote 10, with sketches of an "11th." So much for the curse of the ninth

After listening to the first movement, I wasn't totally impressed. It left me with a sense of formulaic symphonic sounds much like Brahms, but leaner and more grand, hinting to having some Wagnerian influence. After every climax, the music would dissolve into quiet contemplation.  It was only after the subsequent movements did I see the genius that is Bruckner. His great climaxes are probably the most impressive of any composer, not because of the sheer force of sound that Bruckner attains, but the silence that follows. It was almost as if the air was on fire, then a wash of languid water afterwards. The acoustics of St. Dominic's Church only allowed the music to breathe like a fine wine.

If you haven't given a listen to Bruckner, I would not recommend his symphonies right away, but give his choral music, which are, if not all, sacred in nature and not to mention shorter than the marathon symphonies. His Tantum Ergo (WAB 42), Salvum Fac Populum Tuum (WAB 40), and Ave Maria (WAB 6) are my favorite of his masterwork gems.

The second time to Hong Kong a week later, I got off the rocky ferry boat into the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong and met my Cousin Mark. We wandered to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Lonely Planet says "the virtually windowless, sky-jump-shaped Cultural Centre clad in pink ceramic tiles is an aesthetic horror... an eyesore." I'd say when judged purely as architectural perspective, sure it is not in any way appealing. But inside, great art is made and experienced, with the capacity for a metropolitan city- a 2,085 seat concert hall, a Grand Theatre that can hold 1,750, and a studio theatre for 535.

As I was meandering around the foyer area, I became aware through the numerous posters marketing the 2011/2 season and that pianist Marc André Hamlin was giving a solo recital that night with an orchestra-piano programme the following night featuring the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan's music director, Shao-Chia Liu.

Mr. Hamelin is a superb pianist. Despite being extremely stage right, facing Hamelin's back the entirety of the concert, I was thirsty for the Hong Kong music culture. Frank, like any Frank that I have heard, reminds me a bit of Brahms. Having only known of his Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue, and the Frank Quintet, it was bliss to listen to balanced orchestration. Bruckner's was apprehensively bursting at the seams. The Symphonic Variations reminded me a bit of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Photo: courtesy of Dr. Rochester
(and a nice review too!)
The Piano Wizard
Saturday, 9 March 2012, 20:00, 
RAVEL: La Valse
FRANK: Symphonic Variations
STRAUSS: Burleske
LUTOSLAWSKI: Concerto for Orchestra

Richard Strauss' Burleske was written when he was 21, dedicated to pianist Hans von Bülow. He said that it was "Lisztian" and "unplayable." It was renamed to its present title and rededicated and played by Eugen d'Albert, with Strauss as conductor. It's a show piece and quite impressive. It has it's delicate and grand moments and shines through and through as a late-romantic German piece of art. And impressive for Hamelin to do an Asian tour all with different programs!

Lastly, a word of my piano teacher, Dr. John Pickett. He has been my closest mentor. For the past five years, He taught me how to play well, believed in my talent and nurtured me to my fullest potential. His playing is true to the score. The most memorable of his performances has surely been his most recent in February, Liszt's Sonata in B Minor Sonata. There's nothing like hearing a performance live, and this was the first time I had heard it in person. What a taxing piece! It is the most epic sonata (if not of the whole entire solo repertoire) known to my intellect. It is based on Goethe's telling of the epic tale of Faust selling his soul to Mephistopheles for limitless power.
Some musical things I've learned from him:
    • The music printed is simply what's written on the page. Do that and your interpretation will never fail you. The human part is the music that comes from you- mind and heart.
    • All you need to do is to play 1) accurately & 2) in time.
    • Play to the bottom of the keybed.
    • Dynamics are a sign of intelligence. Pedaling is a sign of good manners.
    • Feel the pulse, interpret the rhythm. 
Until next time. 


Sam Booth said...

You have great blog entries and I enjoy your style of writing! Miss you pal!

Gus Labayen said...

Miss you too roommate! Rereading some of my experiences is nice because memories do fade in time, especially after doing so much in so little time. Did you/will you write a journal/blog about your Spring Break adventures?