Fine Orchestra, Pathetic Attendance

I was pleasantly surprised with the choice of repertoire for the MPO’s concert on Friday June 25. It is comforting to know that the MPO views the Malaysian public as capable of stomaching more serious and heavy selections of the orchestral repertoire. Although I doubt if many could follow the musical discourse of Richard Strauss’s monumental Ein Heldenleben, it is a still a positive gesture nonetheless.

Guest conductor, Gabriel Chmura, did his native Poland justice by introducing an exceptional work by Polish-­born composer, Wojciech Kilar (b. 1932). Kilar, who studied with Nadia Boulanger and counts Goreki and Penderecki as his compatriots, is relatively unknown outside the contemporary composers circle. However, his mainstream reputation lies in producing film scores for such moves as Francis Coppola’s Dracula and Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady.

In Krzesany, Kilar skillfully unifies his modernist and populist styles into an engaging and refreshing work. Chmura’s interpretation of the piece was clear and imaginative. Although the MPO demonstrated some remarkable technical dexterity and coordination, the ‘oomph’ was simply taken away by insensitivity towards dynamics. A piece such as the Krzesany, despite sounding like a film score for a horror-turn-comedy movie (Scary Movie 2?), begs for extreme dynamic contrast, which was lacking throughout the piece. The climatic crescendo towards the end of the composition started too loud and the orchestra was unable to sustain the swell, causing the passage to be lukewarm and anti-dimatic. And the piano passages were, well, not soft and precious enough. Even Chmura seemed to gesture for more contrast from his ensemble, if I read him right. The Krzesany is inspired by two very contrasting elements – the Polish mountains and folk dances. I didn’t feel no Polish mountain. Rather, it felt like Fraser’s Hill. Nice place, but what about it?

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto is overplayed – pretty much like the Tchaikovsky. Thus it is really unfair to accuse a violinist of being unimaginative or bland. Try injecting freshness or ‘individual flair’ into ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – variations not withstanding. But of course, there are exceptions in everything. Russian-trained Boris Belkin demonstrated exceptional musical taste in his execution of the Prokofiev’s second. His solo opening tells us all about this artist – tasteful, elegant and classy (NOT ghetto fabulous). It was beautifully phrased with measured use of vibrato. The technical passages in the first movement were executed with great ease and complemented with thoughtful phrasing. Chmura’s collaboration was noteworthy although there were some moments when the orchestra was annoyingly inattentive and careless, despite Prokofiev’s very simplistic and straight-forward orchestration. The slow movement provided more avenues for Belkin to demonstrate his musical maturity. His tone was consistent and sweet, although it would have been great if he could conjure slightly more tonal depth in the ‘intoxicating’ second movement.

I loved the bite and excitement of the third movement. In this movement, we saw a better manipulation of dynamics by the orchestra, although of no redeeming quality. Coordination was once again careless in the third movement, with a glaring, if not embarrassing, slip in the reprise of the movement’s theme. During this piece, I felt that the soloist was ‘too good’ for the orchestra. Here, we have this master of the instrument, confident and passionate about his playing, while on the other end, we have this clumsy ensemble whose players are more interested in patronising the cocktail bar rather than striving to complement the soloist’s very polished performance.

Richard Strauss’s notorious tone poems are always dependable determinants of a good orchestra. With its soloistic instrumental passages, complex harmonies and tricky rhythms, these tone poems are very daunting indeed. In Ein Heldenleben, the MPO was sensational. Here, we observed why the MPO is the best in Southeast Asia and one of the very top in Asia. The strings are formidable by any standards, with special kudos to the cellos for unbelievably crisp articulation and warm, unified toned. Chmura was able to conjure the complex emotions in this musical account of a story about pride, hatred, love, lust, contentment and arrogance. However, I wished that he had given more attention in the fifth act where Strauss reintroduces the motifs from his previous masterworks, including Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra. The invocation of these motifs was bland and did not reflect the different circumstances surrounding the pieces they originated from. Also, I was terribly disappointed with the concertmaster’s performance of the huge violin solo in the third act – ‘The Hero’s Helpmate.’ Mr. Jorgensen’s playing was plain, uneventful and lacked musical depth. To be fair, I doubt his playing is reflective of the standards of the other violinists in the orchestra. The last act, however, which tracks the ultimate battle between the hero and his rivals, was stellar and dramatic. Very impressive indeed!

Careless accompaniment and bad solo-playing aside, the most disappointing aspect of the night was the attendance. It was pathetic – for the lack of a better word. The MPO is such a fine orchestra and it beats me that there were so many seats left unfilled. Something has to be done about it – replan the marketing strategy, adjust ticket prices, stop the box office from lying about availability of seats (my friend called up the day before and asked if any seats were available; the ticketing personnel said no). MPO really has the ability to inspire and it would be a pity if it continues to be the hang out area for wannabe socialites and stage moms.


First Published: 19.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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