Monday, January 25, 2016

Robust, epic Beethoven in PPO's 2016 opener

April Merced-Misa, piano
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Honna Tetsuji, conductor

Ludwig van Beethoven
     Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
     Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica

The robust sound of Beethoven filled the CCP Main Theater when guest conductor Honna Tetsuji took the reins at the most recent subscription concert of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. Scrapping the originally announced program of a Richard Strauss suite and a Haydn symphony, the concert became an all-Beethoven affair with the updated line up of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 with April Merced-Misa as the soloist and Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica.

The pre-concert chat with Olivier Ochanine, the PPO’s principal conductor/music director, and Honna Tetsuji recounted how their meeting during an event by the Embassy of Vietnam in Manila years ago paved the way for the latter to conduct the PPO.

I can’t begin to say how pleased I was on how April’s piano concerto turned out. Having a competent orchestra by her side this time around, she was able to course through the piece as if it was a walk in the park. An orchestra that bit more Tchaikovsky than it could chew hounded her piano concerto debut almost six years ago. And that performance became more a test of April’s resolve rather than a showcase of her musicality. I only had one quibble which was the unsettling reverb inside the hall that muddled the overall sound especially the numerous runs of the piano.

Whatever it was that caused the reverb earlier on was thankfully gone during the second half that was devoted solely to the symphony.  Second only to the 9th Symphony in terms of length, listening to the epic Eroica required a great deal of concentration for me. Thankfully, this piece is no longer a stranger to me and performances from a couple of seasons ago were still fresh on my mind. The European seating of the orchestra, with the second violins seated at the conductor’s right where the viola or cello section usually is, offered a fresh way to listen to the piece. The stereophonic effect of the violins gave a new dimension in the listening experience and this was most evident during the fugue of the fourth movement. I felt that Tetsuji rushed too much during the first movement and this speed gave me an impression that there wasn’t enough room for the music to breathe. Miraculously, the usually dodgy horns went without a hitch during the trio of the third movement.

Conducting wise, Tetsuji has a more subdued style compared to the more exuberant Fukumura, the guest conductor from the month before. Tetsuji did shake things up a bit in this concert starting with the more traditional European seating, not only placing the violins directly opposite of each other, but by lining up the double basses in a single row at the back. There were also new faces in the orchestra as few members of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra joined in for this concert.

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