Saturday, October 27, 2012

PPO II: The Mysterious Mountain

Double Bassist Kurt Muroki

Kurt Muroki, double bass
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Olivier Ochanine, conductor

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
Giovanni Bottesini Double Bass Concerto No. 2 in B minor
Sergei Prokofiev Lieutenant Kijé Suite
Alan Hovhaness Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2), Op. 132

The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra finally took over the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (CCP Main Theater) after getting displaced by the seven week run of the Phantom of the Opera. Led by principal conductor and music director Olivier Ochanine along with guest soloist, double bassist Kurt Muroki, the PPO presented The Mysterious Mountain, their second concert for their Milestones season celebrating the orchestra’s 40th year and 30th concert season.

This concert started with a very familiar piece, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48. I heard the PPO strings section rehearse this last January when they were preparing for the vin d'honneur. They eventually scrapped this from their repertoire for the event but I still told Olivier that this should be played at one of their season concerts. And then it finally happened. But this Serenade was delivered in an unusual manner for me. The performance I heard that night didn’t go to the extremes like having the introduction (and its subsequent reappearance towards the end) more robust, and making the fast passages more light and nimble. Things somehow stayed in the middle. I guess that this stemmed from listening to the recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan multiple times that a different interpretation startled me a bit. But the performance of the Élégie was sublime driving the audience to applaud right after the movement. After this was the performance of Giovanni Bottesini’s Double Bass Concerto No. 2 in B minor featuring double bassist Kurt Muroki. This was probably the highlight of the evening for many in the audience. Rarely do people see a double bassist on the spotlight and Kurt Muroki delivered a memorable performance. This concerto felt like it was actually a sung piece or an aria from an opera made possible by the clarity of how Muroki played his solo parts. Many times, it felt like he was playing a big cello that had additional strings for the lower notes. And for his encore, he did play a piece for the cello which was the Gigue from Johann Sebastian Bach Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007.

Kurt Muroki and conductor Olivier Ochanine

The second half of the concert started with the Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Sergei Prokofiev. I was very pleased that I didn’t have to wait that late into the season before I get to hear this piece that I suggested that the PPO play. It still fascinates me to think that this work is an early movie soundtrack by a notable composer who also wrote symphonies, concertos, and music for the opera and ballet. The PPO was able to showcase Prokofiev’s brilliance in telling stories and I  reckon that even if most of the people in the audience weren’t aware of the actual story of Lieutenant Kijé, they were able to get some of it. But I believe that viewing the actual film really helps since in it was the actual score in which this suite was based. Right off the bat, the Lieutenant Kijé theme by a solo cornet was played from a distance, off stage probably indicating that there was actually no such real person in the first place. After that came the fleshing out of the character through the fictitious romance, wedding and the delightful sleigh ride that followed it. And when the solo cornet theme was played for the last time, capping the whole suite with his death, it made me feel bad that Lieutenant Kijé did not really exist in the first place. For the last piece of the evening which was Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2), Op. 132, the PPO did something different. They played this piece with the stage lights dimmed as photos of various mountains were projected on stage. I usually don’t like gimmicks in orchestral performances but thank goodness that this one was not too over the top that it became a distraction. While the Prokofiev piece told a story, this one evoked feelings of majesty, mysticism and even spirituality. The opening 10/4 of the symphony really intrigued me at first and lured me to listen further. The double fugue later on felt like the opposing winds high up in the mountain. I initially looked forward hearing this piece back in 2011 when everyone else was celebrating Hovhaness 100th birth anniversary. Well, the PPO may be a year too late in honoring him but good music doesn’t need to be timed with anniversaries in order to be played.

The Masterclass

I’ve said before that I always like having the masterclass before the concert itself. I prefer knowing the guest artists first for it gives me a greater appreciation of their performance. And a masterclass is a great way of knowing their styles, personalities and even some of their quirks that I eventually notice during their actual performances.

Kurt Muroki conducted a masterclass days before the concert and observing it had a big impact on me. For one, I’ve decided earlier on not to listen to the Bottesini concerto before the concert since it was the only one in the programme that I haven’t heard of before. And I want to have that element of surprise of hearing the piece for the very first time during a live performance. But someone had that Bottesini piece for the masterclass and that left me with no choice but to listen to it. I eventually got so tempted that I listened to a recording of the whole piece once I got home. So there goes the element of surprise for me.

Seriously, even though I don’t play the double bass I still learned a lot from the masterclass. One of the things he shared that I can apply to the piano is practicing not just the technique but also the performance. He explained that one must shut the brain, listen to the music and just play. After that comes the analysis of what works and what doesn’t. And then one repeats the process until he ends up with something that works in a performance. Because of this, the performance becomes freer and not too cerebral. As for someone like me who is obsessed with technique, this was a huge lesson for me as I am currently preparing for a somewhat public performance (which I am actually dreading). What this is all about, I can’t tell yet. But when it happens, Kurt Muroki will be someone that I have to thank for providing much needed help.

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