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UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra

Charles Dutoit, conductor
Akiko Suwanai, violin
Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Concert Hall
Thursday 13 November 2003, 8pm

Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky - Concert for violin and orchestra in D major, Op.35

  • Allegro moderato
  • Canzonetta: Andante
  • Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47

  • Moderato
  • Allegretto
  • Largo
  • Allegro non troppo

Review by Noelle Ho
14 November 2003

Being young can make a difference. Critics in the past have always blamed the unsatisfying performances and the poor acoustics of Cultural Centre on the quality of the concert hall, or lack thereof. But last night's concert was different. Never have I experienced such overwhelming sense of energy, richness in sound and vitality in the air. Perhaps it was Dutoit's magic, perhaps it was the expensive instruments, but the sheer youth, talents and enthusiasm of the musicians definitely helped create a most impressive and fulfilling concert that I have been to in a long time.

The program of the concert was a little more "Russian" than I had expected. This music 'tour' of Russian history started off with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35 which set the audience in motion for a glimpse of the 19 th century Russia . Heavily influenced by Western Romanticism through the constant use of chromaticism and virtuosic writing, Russian characteristics prevailed as the Slavic folk rhythm was used throughout the concerto.

Being young can also surprise you. What caught my attention when violinist Akiko Suwanai entered the stage was not only her simple yet elegant shimmering black dress but also her eye-catching contour that was outlined by the unpretentious, fitted gown. Much as I was stunned upon first glance by her appearance, I had my doubts on her strength to command control and convey power to the audience due to her young-age. Afterall, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto was known to be one of the most challenging pieces for violinists that require not only skills, and talents but strength also. However, as soon as Suwanai picked up her multi-million dollar Strad "Dolphin", I knew my worries were unnecessary. No doubt it was unfortunate that the occasional slips at the beginning caused her to only 'get-into' the piece until half way through the exposition, but luckily, she quickly 'came-around' and handled the development section with vigor and passion. Finally, the cadenza not only compensated for the small hiccups at the beginning, but it fully confirmed her talents and earned her respect from the audience. Her effortless playing of the double stops, harmonics and running passages of scales and arpeggios from the G-string first position to the high positions on the E-string was extraordinary.

To an expert, no doubt there is still a long way to go for Suwanai to polish her playing. If she were to become a world-renown professional violinist, it is not just acquiring refinement on her technique and expression, but to achieve absolute perfection on every aspect of her playing. After all, it requires more than just a good body, talents and fast finger-work to charm and impress; experience and deep emotional involvement are the two key elements in musical expression that will only come and grow with age. Having said that, for a young violinist, Suwanai certainly played the demanding Tchaikovsky with flair, precision and passion. All the applause she received from the audience was unquestionably well deserved.

Following Tchaikovsky, the audience was then given a preview of Russia under the oppressive Communist Regime of Stalin from the performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 47. Among the composer's prolific oeurve, this symphony epitomizes Shostakovich's definition of 'Russian-ness". It is essentially a evolutionary journey of the Slav's suffering to bitterness, from repression to tension, and finally from grief to 'forced optimism'. His 'signature' is the use of dotted (quaver-semiquaver-semiquaver- quaver-semiquaver-semiquaver- quaver-quaver- quaver-quaver) rhythmic pattern that resembles the Slavic folk dance to link different motifs together throughout the whole symphony. Another Shostakovich characteristic is the frequent use of fast scale-like duets between the woodwinds, flute in particular and the xylophone.

Like Mahler, Shostakovich was also an excellent orchestrator. As a master would say, 'you don't need every instrument to play to wholly utilize the orchestra to show its fullest capability!' Choosing the Fifth did just the job to display the composer's skills and the Orchestra's potential. With only at most two to three musical ideas at any given time juggled and shared between instruments, different parts usually play in unison to highlight the prevailing theme. However, this does not equal dull composition or in anyway a tedious performance. On the contrary, the orchestra gave a most remarkable performance of the piece and exhibited to the audience each and everyone's versatility as an individual musician as well as a group. The Moderato was full of energy as everyone was intensively involved in expressing bitterness and suffering; Allegretto was lively and full of dynamism even Dutoit was busy dancing on his podium to the cheerful waltz-like rhythm; Largo - the lyrical movement full of poetic and poignant phrases, the audience could not help but be drawn to the music drowning in misery and sorrow; Allegro non troppo was full of emotional dilemma while the audience is being tormented between uncertainties in life, repression and hope resulting in this 'forced optimism'.

It was without a doubt an unparalleled performance played by a phenomenal music team. I was astonished by the group as I have never known of such energy, eagerness and competence in youth orchestral playing until last night. It couldn't possibly have been just the effort and hardwork of a single person, but rather a perfect blend of the inspirations and visions of Levine, the discipline and patience of Dutoit, as well as the talent, diligence and enthusiasm of the young musicians that created this extraordinary orchestra with such envious reputation.

It was truly an awe-inspiring experience.