World No.1 and China No.1 Orchestras; Beethoven and Bruckner No.7 Symphonies

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and China National Symphony Orchestra (CNSO) both performed in New York last week. Concertgebouw performed in the Carnegie Hall while China National performed at the Lehman Center of Performing Arts in Bronx. Although it is not fair to compare these two performances, since there is no comparison to the prestigious Carnegie Hall, but it is important for us to see how fast the Chinese orchestras are catching up or how far behind they still are.

Mariss Jansons, of course is fantastic conducting Strauss Tod und Verklärung and Bruckner Symphony No. 7. Both pieces are on the faster side, smooth and have great flow, although it could have more intensity and roughness at times, such as in the second movement of Bruckner. The melody line of violins sounds too pretty on high position of G-string. After all, it’s in C minor and the “nature” of the G-string (a little screeching sound) at that register was totally overcome by the great violinists. Li Xincao, the principal resident conductor of CNSO, is a wonderful conductor too. His minimal movements forced the orchestra to listen more (according to Maurice Peress, who was sitting right in front of me that night), and he was in full command. Even though the rhythm in the first movement is arguably accurate, the second movement was very well executed. He took a “real” allegretto tempo, which was very easy on the ears, not a moment of dullness in such a long movement. For the last movement, Maestro Peress felt that it was a little fast although I think it was a reasonable tempo since I have heard the fastest Beethoven 7 in my life a few months ago at CCM.

Sometimes listening to each other is overrated. I am not suggesting that one should not listen while playing, but depending on the hall, sometimes it is just impossible to hear anything. The concertgebouw on Thursday in Carnegie Hall was by far the most balanced orchestra I have ever heard. Even when the brass section was blasting (or maybe not so much), you can still hear every single wind instruments. Another great feature of the orchestra is that the string players project the sound so well, especially when they are playing on the higher register. There were no fear and hesitation of being not in tune, and of course they are perfectly in tune. In a hall like Carnegie, you could easily hear your colleagues on the stage and balance the sound, assuming they are used to doing so. Everybody on the stage that night knows when to play out a little and when to retreat. That was truly a treat although there was a moment in the Strauss, where the horns and basses were not completely in tune playing in unison since they were separated at both sides.

Compared to the Carnegie, the auditorium at Lehman Center has huge problem on top of the crapy piano which the soloist, Wu Muye had to play on. The piano itself is not a bad one but it was in a pretty bad condition when it was played. Some notes, especially the high notes were not properly tuned, which is quite disturbing for Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1. Wu has perfect technique, octaves playing was impressive, loud and clear, but musically, it is more about himself than about Tchaikovsky. Well, that is always open for debate anyway. Fourteen pieces of acoustical sound shells were used in the hall, but that only made the horns and trumpets sound extremely loud and covered the rest of the orchestra as they blast. The wind ensemble itself could not balance among themselves. Different instruments stuck out at random places, more like a controlling problem than listening issue. Therefore, it sounds like the wind and brass were never playing as a group which makes the strings relatively good. Unlike the Concertgebouw, the CNSO plays more from note to note and lacks of phrasal sense. I do not think that Li Xincao did not show enough lines, but the orchestra just did not seem to respond to that.

With both Maestri’s gestures, I must say the CNSO played more together on each beat. However, unfortunately that does not equal to great music making especially when all the end of the phrases were sloppy. The horns would never cut off together with the strings, and the winds would never end together. On the other hand, since there were not much of “attack” playing in the Concertgebouw, you do not hear them “banging” the downbeat at once, but the sound somehow merge together beautifully. And the beauty of music is when everybody ends together, maybe not exactly together, but there is an instinct of a same gesture. The musicians in the Concertgebouw agree with each other stylistically, share the same musical taste, and blend their sound.

It was a great trip to New York, to see one of the best orchestra performances in my life.

Concerts on Feb. 14 and 16.

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