Chicago Symphony Orchestra — First evening in Hong Kong

304_large_03_hd@3xWhen Lorin Maazel is driving carefully the mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a very slow Mozart Jupiter Symphony, my mind drifts off to recall the good old days of Mr. Maazel.

It is hard not to remember my definitive sounds of Mr. Maazel, in his very robust rendition of Jean Sibelius’ symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has firm grip of the music; the music has good momentum; there are refined articulations; and he has made sense of what cannot be easily be understood: how the drama of music unfolds.

Mr. Maazel understands the music well and is a very patient good teacher when he commands from the podium. He controls over the phrasing details; his baton bounces with subtle tenutos; he crafts out crescendo over the lengthy finale fugue, and the orchestral responds to all accordingly. The music is as serious as an artistic statement of what Mozart should really sound like from Mr. Maazel’s mind and how you should play them right.

And my mind drifts on and off, trying to apprehend what makes Mr. Maazel doing so, completely different from the good old days.

I hold great respect to Mr. Maazel. However the Mozart he directed leaves me puzzled at best. The performance is not easily making sense to me; out of the very slow tempo, there is not much detail to find under the surface; out of the repeated expositions, they sound not quite different, and they play no role in the overall tension either; out of the refined articulations and controlled dynamics, the music does not have drama.

To modern ears, it can be puzzling if a conductor is there only to make things right and side not to any stylistic preference, be it an overly dramatic tone or grossly focussed on the perfection of sound or utmost attention to historical correctness (fill in the names of conductors as you may, please). At least it is true to me. When I feel that the performance is not making a point, it is just yet another good performance and that’s that.

But in the age of repeated enjoyment of those same old music where success from iPods are more guaranteed than live orchestras, does just another good performance work?

The Brahms second symphony in the second half gives me some more thoughts. Sometimes a good live performance contains the moments to live for. It’s when the diminished seventh resolves up with the sostenuto of a down bow scratches like a sigh; it’s when the swinging incalzando made Brahmsian but not Tchaikovsky-esque by just a little more intensity on the swing before reaching the trough but not on it (Yes, incalzando is the best word there but Brahms never used it). They give me great moments of suspension, torture and relieve that may not necessarily be reproducible on a stereo. And there they are in the concert.

However, if a music performance is simply to make others feel that this is great music, just another good performance would not necessarily work.

The Brahms sounds not charming. With all the details, it sounds intellectual. Or, dull.

The first encore (Brahms’ first Hungarian Dance in G minor) sounds like the conductor and the musicians has had a long due meeting on this piece; the more calculated rubatos are understood differently by different sections of the orchestra in the trio. The magic wand doesn’t work this time. Some crossed-rhythms in the finale of Brahms’ second symphony happened the same, but less obviously. The second encore, the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin, let the legendary brass shines for the first time in the concert.

There is one thing to mention: there is a very impressive horn solo in the first movement of the second symphony. Kudos to that extremely lengthy yet intense solo. That is sourly beautiful.

Lorin Maazel replaces Riccardo Muti in conducting this concert as Mr. Muti is sick and is absent from touring to Asia with the orchestra. This is one of the concerts in 2013 Hong Kong Arts Festival.

I have written about the second night’s performance here.

Photo © Todd Rosenberg

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