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Ultimate Triumph

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
12/05/2008 -  & December 6
Gustav Mahler : Symphony No. 9
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Conductor and Music Director)

Edo de Waart (© Bobby Lee)

One of the most eye-catching events of the 2008-09 HKPO season is Edo de Waart’s Mahler 9th Symphony. In the past 4 years as HKPO’s music director, Mahler has been part of de Waart’s central repertoire. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Mahler 9th has finally come to us. Amongst Mahler’s symphonies, this particular one is not the most huge-forced one. It does not involve a choir, a solo voice, a huge percussion ensemble, or any special instruments, such as a saxophone or a mandolin. On the other hand, this work is architecturally the most grand-scale one (it lasts for 90 minutes), and emotionally the most profound one.
The Ninth marked the falling curtain of many great composers’ lives, such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner. Mahler was also unable to escape from this magical and tragical number, with Symphony No. 9 as his last completed symphony. Alban Berg described the first movement of this symphony as “being permeated with premonition of death”. At the same time, this symphony unfolds an innovative music style and a new stylistic period. It is the emotional profundity and musical complexity which give every conductor immense challenge.

Tonight, Maestro de Waart proved he is one of those rare conductors who are truly attuned to and understand Mahler’s musical language by delivering a mentally ruminative and structurally coherent reading of this work. Mr. de Waart is by temperament a very serious, even somber musician whose playing generally aspires to introspection rather than surface appeal. But this character is tailor-made for the music style of this work. His rendition tonight was very much embedded in solemnity and dignity, though the price he paid was half under-wrapped climatic power.

Slow passages were the center of attraction. The intimacy and warmth, together with the naturalness of phrasing and sincerity of articulation found in the last adagio movement were most blissful moments that comfortably caressed the attendees’ ears. These remarkable felicities were particularly heightened by the milky and creamy string tones. HKPO was very aware and sensitive to the harmonic changes, which brought to life Mahler’s rapt lyricism. De Waart’s carefully calibrated tempo changes also gave the overall architecture a cohesive and coherent flow.

What is really deserved applause as well was Concertmaster John Harding’s leadership. His judicious choice of fingerings, bowings and phrasings all contributed to outlining the music’s cardinal nature and character. The down-bows for the 3 up-beats in the second movement endowed extra vitality and rusticity to the folk dance; the string glissandos bestowed additional singing quality on the melancholy melodies. The synchronized trills and finger tremolos all displayed John Harding’s commanding leadership on the orchestra, especially the string section.

However, the teeming third movement somehow exposed some of the orchestra’s weaknesses, such as those occasionally out of place high notes in strings, rigid and stony whirlwind in the cellos and double-basses, and feeble brass tones. But these have much to do with the individual techniques of each orchestral player, rather than the directorship and musicianship of the conductor and concertmaster.

After the heavenly and tranquil ending, every corner in the concert hall was filled with Mahler’s rumination and speculation towards death. It was followed by the most honest and respectable ovation by the audience. The last time Mahler’s 9th was performed in Hong Kong, it was more than 10 years ago. Today, Maestro de Waart triumphantly brought to us this ultimate symphony, without letting down our lofty expectation.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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