31 August 2017

A Viola Star in the Making


The annual Concerto Competition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore took place last night.  Never a great fan of competitions, I nevertheless think Concerto Competitions are worth running.  For a start, the audience is treated to several full-length concertos in one sitting (last night there were three) given by soloists who have not only spent the months leading up to the performance thoroughly working on their concerto, but have taken a degree of ownership over it in a bid to make their performance stand out as unique.  For the orchestra it provides a special challenge of having to work with several very different soloists in repertory which would not, in the normal course of events, find itself sharing a programme.  And then, for the soloists themselves, it provides an early opportunity to work in a public concert setting with a full orchestra and to get a taste of what it is like to be a fully-fledged professional.  To use a tired old cliché (and one which was inevitably run out several times last night), every one is a winner.

But the nature of competitions is that somebody has to win.  I remember an occasion when, as one of the three judges at the Christchurch Concerto Competition in New Zealand, we spent over two hours deliberating our decision, keeping the audience and soloists in unwarranted suspense all that time.  Our problem was that each of us had a passionate belief in the winner, but each of us had a passionate belief in a different winner, and we argued at length until we could at least come up with a majority decision.  Last night’s deliberations took far less time.  Perhaps because there was just one adjudicator, but I like to think that had there been a busload of judges, the deliberations would have still been brief.  It seemed pretty obvious that there was one performer who so far outshone the others that any question about the ultimate victor was purely technical.

The student orchestra under Jason Lai acquitted themselves extraordinarily well in what was, by any standards, a terribly demanding programme.  Lai’s magnificent command of the Schnittke Viola Concerto was supported by orchestral playing of quite extraordinary polish, every single player clearly utterly engrossed in this intriguing score.  Few professional orchestras – and I would suggest none in South East Asia – could have begun to match this quality of playing.  Lai also held things together in the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante where coordination between soloist and orchestra, always a tricky issue in a work where clarity of texture and rhythmic precision are paramount, was not always easy to achieve.  And he kept the orchestra’s head above water in the Saint-Saëns G minor Piano Concerto when, tired out from an exhausting programme (and presumably an exhausting day of rehearsing) cracks started to emerge, not least in the wind tuning.  No soloist could have asked for better support.

That cellist Chen Pin-Jyun sometimes ran a little out of synch with the orchestra was probably inevitable given the extreme focus he gave to the technical demands of the piece.  When the big virtuoso solos came, he was there with spectacular presence, reeling off great swathes of extremely demanding virtuoso display with impressive security.  This was, from a technical standpoint, a splendid performance; a potential winner, even.  But you got the impression that the focus on technical issues had become an end in itself, and one came away from the performance wondering about its interpretative credentials.  To understand Prokofiev you have to understand satire and sharp, aggressive wit.  Unless you read and absorb satire, unless you laugh at the bitter jibes and thrusts of satirists and can sympathise with a mind set on getting under the skin of established traditions, you can never convey the real spirit of this music. 

I suspect Chen Pin-Jyun is just too nice a guy to play Prokofiev - he has certainly attracted a large, devoted and vociferous fan-base who made their presence vividly felt in the concert.  But I missed the wit, the sharp humour and the fun which is what this marvellous work needs to transform it from a progression of set-piece technical displays to a musical commentary on the years which elapsed between the first ideas for the work and the final version.  In those years Prokofiev went from a rebellious youth, snubbing authority at every opportunity, to a disillusioned, bitter man, looking back on a whole series of catastrophic errors of judgement and wrongly-made life-changing decisions.  He had left Soviet Russia, believing the country had nothing more to offer him, he had achieved success and disillusionment in America and France, and had finally returned home, disillusioned as much by the freedom he had experienced as by the restraints which were imposed on him in his homeland.  There is a world of inner conflict here, which manifests itself in biting, often sarcastic humour; I wonder how much of this Chen had appreciated in his interpretative preparations.

Saint-Saëns kept his emotions at arms’ length, covering his own inner turmoil with a veneer of charm, elegance and a language of such utter refinement that it seems almost too good to be true.  Once or twice pianist Luong Khanh Nhi let emotion seep through, and, not least in the very opening statement, she allowed cracks to emerge in Saint-Saëns’s musical stiff upper-lip;  instead of the powerful tribute to Bach’s great G minor organ work which opens the Concerto, we had a glimpse into the world of Rachmaninov.  In all other respects, however, Luong's was a performance which seemed fully in tune with the spirt and character of the work, and there was nothing hollow, pointless or extravagant about her playing; it all made beautiful sense and carried us along as if on an unstoppable journey.  She paced the outer movements well, she produced a wonderfully rich dynamic palette, colouring each small detail with consummate care, and above all conveyed a clear overarching sense of the piece’s architecture.  Only in the delicate Scherzando did she seem a little out of step with the music’s Mendelssohnian delicacy of touch – there was a persistent sense here that she was trying to draw back, and, subtle and discreet as he was about it, Lai needed to prod her along in order to maintain the music’s light and bubbly character.  In ordinary circumstances, despite the small failings, this was a performance which would have won the competition hands down.

But these were not ordinary circumstances.  The evening had begun with something very extraordinary indeed.

Ho Qian Hui - one to watch
Ho Qian Hui gave a performance of the Schnittke Viola Concerto which was not just magnificent, but of a standard you would never expect beyond a top-notch player with a leading European or American orchestra.  Here was a player who had thoroughly imbued herself with the work, who, you knew instinctively, not only knew it inside out, but loved it and was determined to communicate that to her audience.  She was not going to think about competing (although she was, of course, the outright winner) – she was going to think about convincing the world that the Schnittke Viola Concerto, for all its manifest eccentricities and intellectual obstacles, is a fabulous work.  I think she convinced just about everyone. 

The huge technical challenges were passed over effortlessly in the white heat of an inspirational interpretation, and the command Ho had over the entire performance, raised the standard of the orchestra and clearly goaded Lai to match her, bar-for-bar, with his own sympathetic and equally committed approach to the work.  On top of that, Ho produced from her viola not just a tone of absolute sumptuousness, but a level of projection which meant that, even when competing with brass and percussion (not to forget three keyboard instruments) who were not, as they say, sparing the horses, she shone through, pulling our ears into the viola and allowing the noisy orchestra to subside into the background.  This was not just a winning performance; it was on the verge of being a great one.

I am looking forward to attending the 40th Gramophone Awards ceremony in a couple of weeks’ time in London.  I will be rubbing shoulders there with the great and mighty of the musical world.  How long before Ho Qian Hui is one of those?  Certainly, any record company which snaps her up to record the Schnittke will have a potential winner on their hands.

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