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Concert for the Rich and Uncultured

Background

The term 'Youth' can be misleading.

Such is the case with the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra. The usual adjectives you would associate with 'youth' - inexperience, green, shallow... simply do not apply to this Orchestra.

The Orchestra gave a brilliant performance under the baton of Charles Dutoit. This is their second last stop of their ten-stop world tour, starting out from Moscow at the end of October and will end in Mumbai in mid-November.

The world-tour features two different programs under two different conductors in Europe and Asia. James Levine conducted the European portion of the tour, playing Bartok, Prokofiev and Dvorak.

The Concert

I had little expectation. Cultural Center has the capability to turn any good sounding orchestra into a total chaos. How well can a 'Youth' Orchestra perform given the built-in defect of the Hall?

As violinist Akiko Suwanai stepped on stage, she caught my full attention. I was just far enough to see her 'presence' on the stage but not close enough to examine her facial features. Her overall presence had me thinking that she is the prettiest violinst I have seen for quite some time. Nice dress, nice posture, very pleaseing to the eyes.

I have read that Tchaikovsky's Vioin Concerto is one of the most technically demanding pieces for a violinst. My only 'reference' is an old RCA recording of Heifetz. I supposed that is the 'reference' for many. I have Heifetz's sound burned in my head.

Not many violinists can compare to Heifetz, especially with someone as young as Suwanai. As the music unfolded, it was clear that the piece did pose some technical challenges for her. She had a few technical glitches here and there, especially in the first movement. But as she warmed up, gone are the minor imperfections. The music became passionate and confident. It became clear what she was 'capable' of.


About mid way through the first movement, I thought to myself, 'this has to be one of the best sound I have heard at Cultural Center.' The Orchestra, while playing the 'accompaniment' role in the Concerto, had a solid sound with a very solemn tone. Charles Dutoit did not steal the highlight. It was Suwanai's show. What was more surprsing was that, despite the few technical glitches, Suwanai's sound was bold and solid in the lower octaves, but managed to give out sweet and delicate highs. I flipped through the program notes as the music progressed, and found out that she plays on a 1714 Stradivarius, known as the 'Dolphin', once owned and played by Heifetz!

With her numerous awards from international competitions, Suwanai must one one of the most promising musicians I have come across. No doubt, with time, her skills and interpration will be polished.

In the meantime, her looks, her 'Dolphin' and her 'presence' will get her a long long way.

After the intermission, it was the Orchestra's turn.

A good friend of mine recommended Shostakovich to me many times, but up till this concert, I failed to understand the musical language of Shostakovich. It always sounded hollow and empty. And he must be using some odd interval that is very rare in Western music. In order to prepare myself for this concert, I decided I should at least get familiar with his sound. I have been listening to Haitink's version in my car for the past month. While I no longer find it 'incomprehensible' as I used to, it was still far from pleasing. And Shostakovich's Fifth was already supposed to be one of his more accessible symphones.

The Fifth began. Rushes of sound toggled between the lower and upper strings. Despite the fact that this is a 'Youth' Orchestra, the sound was heartfelt, solemn and 'suppressing', just as Shostakovich intended. There was no freedom, no humor. It was pure horror. The central climax in the first movement literally made me lost my 'breathing rhythm.' It was so unbearable and unpleasent I actually wished it would stop.

Dutoit conducted with much more energy than he did for the Concerto, and the Orchestra responded accordingly. The Youths in the Youth Orchestra did not have a problem grasping the fundamental message of S's Fifth. Given the historical background during the late 1930s, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of terror he had to live under. And it clearly showed in the music.

It was said that the piece ends in 'optimism'. I couldn't quite agree with it. While musically and technically, there's little doubt that the Finale is an 'upbeating' one, I still could only justify the ending as 'forced optimism'. Perhaps the 'horror' in the earlier movements left too deep a scar, or maybe there really is a hidden sense of 'unjustified justice' in the music. It just is not a very convcining optimism.

While the performers gave a memorable performance, the Hong Kong audience is a real shame. This is a concert offered by UBS to its staff and private-banking clients. I would assume the audience is relatively well-off. However, they lack the basic manners a good Audience should have. There was a man behind us who was on and off 'chatting' with another person; the audience clapped between EVERY movement of the two pieces (I think Dutoit must have found it VERY annoying when the audience clapped after S'5's First movement. He did not really let his hands 'down' for the later movements to avoid 'wrong' clappings again). If anything were to be concluded about the Audience, it was that they are rich and uncultured.

Despite the embarassing audience, the concert was indeed one of the most memorable concerts I have had in Hong Kong. This Orchestra puts many other professional Orchestras in shame, including our very own HK Philharmonic Orchestra.

The soloist surprised me. The sound of the Strad definitely lived up to its fame. The Orchestra impressed me. Dutoit was a bit 'uncharateristic', but did an honest job in leading the Orchestra in both pieces. I would definitely buy a CD of the UBS Verbier Orchestra, and perhaps a DVD, instead of CD, of Suwanai!

2003.11.13 - WS