Monday, September 26, 2016

Classical throwback with Alexander Vikulov and the Manila Symphony Orchestra

Russian conductor Alexander Vikulov continued the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s run of performing the final three symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven by tackling the 8th symphony on a night that took the audience on a classical music throwback of sorts.

The concert also saw the aforementioned Beethoven’s symphony paired with music from the ballet Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky.

I have to admit that I was thrown off a bit when I realized that the Pulcinella to be performed was not the suite, but the entire ballet complete with the vocal parts. The singers who lent their voices were baritone Noel Azcona, tenor Mark Bautista and soprano Camille Lopez-Molina. I do have to confess that I’ve never given Pulcinella that much attention compared to other Stravinsky ballets like Petrushka, Firebird, and the Rite of Spring. In fact, the concert was the first time I’ve ever heard of the music in its entirety as I’ve only acquainted myself with the suite. On the surface, the music sounded like that of the classical era, but the harmonies bordered on being neoclassical. It’s because the ballet actually featured Stravinsky’s arrangement of 18th century music composed by/attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi and a handful of others.

And it was a moment of discovery for me hearing this piece in an intimate venue such as the Power Mac Center Spotlight. The unique configuration of the orchestra featuring a concertino of strings played by the principals as well as the trio of singers made for a challenging listening experience. I wish that I had chosen a seat farther from the orchestra. A bit of distance could’ve resulted in hearing the sound as a whole rather than feeling as if I were smack in the middle of it. And similar to my experience with other Stravinsky’s ballets, I would’ve been able grasp the music on its own had I’ve seen the ballet either with the original choreography or even if it was just an adaptation.

Before getting into the Beethoven symphony, Vikulov led the MSO with the Overture to Démophon by Luigi Cherubini, a Philippine premiere performance if I’m not mistaken. Again, I have no idea about Cherubini and what his opera is all about but this short piece actually set the tone to the Beethoven symphony that followed it.  It must be a time for confessions but I do have to say that I’ve a tendency to overlook Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 with it being sandwiched by the seventh which is my favorite and the ninth which is monumental in scope. I’ve always thought that Beethoven went some steps back for the eighth and purposely made it light and short, harkening back the symphonies of Haydn, as if he already knew how colossal his ninth would be.

With the symphony not possessing any tinge of heaviness, I didn’t mind at all being very close to the orchestra feeling every sudden change of dynamics. And with this piece not really having a slow movement, it drew me more to the orchestra.

Linking the music thematically as the composers’ throwbacks to music from another era was an effective way for me to get into the groove into this concert that featured pieces that I’ve generally overlooked in the past.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Violinist Ryu Goto, conductor Yoshikazu Fukumura fire up Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s 34th season opener

A season opening concert heralding the start of Yoshikazu Fukumura’s stint as the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director and principal conductor would’ve been enough of an audience draw. Yet the inclusion of violinist Ryu Goto as the evening’s guest soloist not only heightened the excitement, it also ensured that this concert would be a lock among the best in year ending lists.

Having watched Fukumura’s four previous guest conducting stints with the PPO, I am already familiar not only with his animated and entertaining conducting style but also by how he is able to bring out a unified and balanced sound from the orchestra. And at the opening night, the orchestra’s sound was raised a notch further with the addition of the new wooden floor panels that covered the drab, black weathered main theater floor. As the orchestra performed the opening piece, Hector Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9, the lower strings was heard more distinctly, the changes in tempo came off as more precise, and the texture and colors, more vivid. I’ve had my regular seat for the past four seasons and the marked improvement with how the sound was projected from the stage to my seat made by these wooden floor panels was very discernible.

These panels also made for striking visuals. The fully lit stage looked brighter and the warm colored wood contrasted nicely with the black garments of the orchestra members. With this, I think that the next concerts could do away with the flowers lining up the front the stage.

On to Ryu Goto and his highly anticipated performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. During the first two movements, Ryu stood out as the orchestra played in a noticeably scaled down manner as if it was just a chamber orchestra. These movements also went on a tad slower pace than what I am usually accustomed to. Apart from some momentary distractions when I expected the orchestra to be less subdued and a bit faster, I was completely mesmerized by Ryu and his superb articulation which never wavered even up until the end of the brisk third movement. The enthusiastic audience response prompted two encores from him. First was a free flowing, unaccompanied Meditation from Thaïs by Jules Massenet which was followed by an excerpt of the first movement Obsession from Eugene Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 27 "Jacques Thibaud".

The real test of the evening for me on how Fukumura would lead the orchestra was the performance of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Right off the bat, my attention was caught by how crisp the lower pitched instruments sounded particularly the contrabassoon. Never in my concert viewing experience have I heard this instrument sounding more pronounced hearing each note played clearly and it is very likely due to the new wooden floors. But these floors have possibly made the spotty moments of the horns more obvious. While the Tchaikovsky’s earlier movements went a tad too slow for me, the last movement of the Brahms went too fast. The excitement of the choral theme of the fourth movement probably got Fukumura all excited as he sped throughout the remainder of the piece. I was unable to savor fully the texture of the fugue during the second pass of the choral theme. The clarity of the strings especially the cellos and basses that was brought about by the wooden floors could’ve made for such a divine moment but it all went by like a blur. This fiery pace carried on and there was almost no time to breathe once the final brass choral theme blared triumphantly. Despite the sped up tempo, the excitement was palpable and the audience started to applaud even before the last note ended. There was more Brahms as the audience was treated to the crowd pleasing Hungarian Dance No. 5 for the orchestra’s encore.

Overall, the PPO's 2016-2017 season opening night concert was an exhilarating affair with Ryu Goto’s Tchaikovsky bringing in the crowds and Yoshikazu Fukumura making sure that they stayed until the very end of the Brahms.
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