By Lisa Ho
The new season of concerts by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) opened with a gala performance – for subscribers only – that combined pomp and ceremony with a lot of sparkle and glitter. Subscribers were requested to be dressed in grand fashion and were feted like kings and queens. They had food to eat and nice things to drink. I wasn’t there that evening, but I hear that all concertgoers for the Sat, 21 Aug 2005 concert could even socialise and gossip with the musicians. It was almost like a Viennese Ball. Why this air of festivity? Why not? After all, the MPO has just obtained its new conductor and music director in maestro Matthias Bamert and this is all part of the welcome to usher a renaissance of classical music into KL.
The concert which I went for, on Sunday afternoon (28 August 2005), was a bubbly affair, with most seats in the concert hall filled. There was much excitement both over the appearance of maestro Matthias Bamert and over the singer, soprano Yvonne Kenny. You could feel the restless energy of anticipation, which was absent from the concert hall for a long time.
Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide opened the concert. There was a distinct difference in sound colour that for a while, I could not recognise this as the MPO I was used to from seasons past. Maestro Bamert’s grasp of control over the orchestra, I felt, was a lot freer and easier. This resulted in better pacing and more forceful climaxes that allowed the orchestra to display some of its distinctive colours, especially in its sumptuous depth of sound. The almost Verdi-like dramatic opening was handled with very stylish authority without giving way to excess. I like the horns in particular, and the shimmering quality of tone that colours the music in a regal way. There was no rough-edged sound and the sparkling bits were handled with elegance. True to the vocal character of the opera that follows, darker undertones were brought out within the dense instrumental textures. I was actually sorry that there would be no opera to follow. This bit of genius that maestro Bamert displayed certainly made the music all the more gratifying, especially for me, as I am so partial to Rossini.
The next bit of the concert was the guest appearance of Yvonne Kenny, the Australian soprano noted for her soubrette roles in Mozart’s operas. I wondered why she had chosen to sing Richard Strauß’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) when Strauß had intended these songs for the great Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad. I had also read (before the concert) that Yvonne Kenny has recorded the Vier Letzte Lieder to great critical acclaim in the UK. When she emerged from the wings, I wished her well. She has a light voice and singing Strauß is certainly no stroll in the park.
Yvonne Kenny has a very opulent voice, particularly in the middle range. It is lush and rich. However, it is still a light voice and the orchestra, on many of the fortisimmi passages, overwhelmed her. Her high notes were clear but small and at the end of it all, she lacked the dramatic rapture required for Im Frühling (In Spring). Her best piece was Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep), which she delivered gloriously, following the violin solo that was so tenderly played by the concertmaster. The applause for Yvonne Kenny was both warm from certain sectors and lukewarm overall, and to my relief, no calls of brava were screamed out. There was also no encore. During the intermission, I was told that the Saturday night’s concert with Yvonne Kenny was also met with a mixed response. Some of the audience felt that she should not have attempted the Vier Letzte Lieder with the light instrument that she possesses, while some others felt that she sang beautifully and the size of her voice did not matter. For me, it was the issue of appropriateness. I think Yvonne Kenny has a lovely voice and her reading Strauß was masterful, but she should leave it to larger voice sopranos to handle song repertoire that demands a voice as big as the Niagara Falls.
The last piece in the gala concert was Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor (op. 25), which was originally written for piano and three strings, but here we were presented a version that was scored and arranged for orchestra by Arnold Schönberg. It’s amusing to note that Schönberg decided to write out this orchestral arrangement because: 1) he liked the piece; 2) it was seldom played; and 3) it was always played badly by good pianists, if at all it was ever played.
Maestro Bamert conducted the MPO in the Brahms’ Piano Quartet with a sophistication that is fascinating in the cerebral sense. The Intermezzo was graceful and contrasts in chordal and rhythmic texture were clearly highlighted. The Rondo alla Zingarese was attacked with a dynamic force of briskness that was exhilarating and there were calls of encore after the whirlwind finish. The MPO then played Brahms’ Hungarian Dance, No.1. The applause was long and hard.
There were two things that struck me at this gala concert. First, how difficult it was to fill seats in a classical concert performance. More and more these days, selling classical music to the masses requires more than a marketable theme or an interesting season programme. It requires some sort of fanfare and loads of sponsorships. It requires marquee names, charm and even sex appeal. There must be enticement: meat with the tantalising promise of cheesecake at the end. Will the new music director and MPO’s marketing people be able to draw more people into the concert hall? While I believe that the MPO will continue to improve under the leadership and baton of maestro Bamert, the RM1 million question is: what’s next on the horizon? Will there be a revival of interest for classical music, and who will be there to help it survive amidst the sweep of reality TV music contests that is becoming the official culture of the masses?
The second thing I thought about when Yvonne Kenny sang Strauß’s lullaby was how much music connects us with ourselves. When the violin solo was played, I was transfixed to the past, to a tiny moment of my life that I cannot hope to relive – I was less cynical then, and madly in love. Classical music, in particular, does funny things to many people. A simple melody may trigger open a tone bank of memories. It is precisely this memory that defines all of us and links us so inexplicably to ourselves, like nothing else can, in this lonely world.
That is why we need gala MPO concerts. That is why we all dress up nicely at classical concerts and attend them with religious fervour. These concerts arouse complex emotions like regret and affection that remind us of the reason we give ghastly gifts on Valentine’s Day as tokens of remembrances to the ones we love, or the ones we used to love.
Lisa Ho directs the infamous Cantus Musicus and is now off in Vienna, hanging out at the Wiener Staatsoper with the cast who are singing Rosinni’s ”William Tell”.
First Published: 15.09.2005 on Kakiseni