Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre / Hong Kong / March 18, 2023 / Ernest Wan
Formed mainly by German orchestral musicians in Prague who were forced after the Second World War to leave Czechoslovakia and settle in the Bavarian town of Bamberg, the Bamberg Symphony, with its Czech chief conductor Jakub Hrůša, recently appeared at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. It performed a repertoire at which, with its history, audiences expect it to excel: symphonies by Antonín Dvořák and Johannes Brahms, as well as music by the Hungarian György Ligeti, whose 100th anniversary is celebrated this year.
The first of the orchestra’s two concerts began with Dvořák’s New World Symphony in E minor (1893), his ninth and last work in the genre. The lower strings’ doleful playing of the soft opening melody and the fierce, incisive fortissimoattacks soon after in the slow introduction were illustrative of the far-reaching emotional landscape to be traversed. While the Largo was scenic and deeply felt as expected, with characterful woodwind solos and delicate sustained string harmonies, even accompanying phrases in the fast movements turned out to be lovingly moulded and unusually expressive. Details like these made the performance of such a popular work stand out among the crowd.
Hrůša’s attention to detail was likewise evident in Brahms’s Fourth (1885), another E-minor last symphony: at the slow movement’s second theme, the first-violin descant on the cello melody has rarely sounded so exquisite. His rendition of the work was marked by austerity. While he often slackened the pace at the subordinate themes in the Dvořák, he resisted making tempo changes unspecified in the Brahms score, as if to avoid injecting unwelcome lyricism into this more tragic work. The darkness of the Bamberg orchestra’s timbre added much to this starkness.
The Brahms was prefaced by Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962), a performance of which consists simply of 100 mechanical metronomes ticking away at different speeds. Here the pyramidal devices were divided into three groups and set in motion one by one, rather than simultaneously as the composer instructs, by several musicians. As more and more metronomes ran down in the course of the 11-and-a-half-minute act, it gradually became clear to the ear that the maximally complex chaos near the start was merely the result of aggregating that which is the simplest and most orderly – the regular pulse.
What does all this have to do with the Romantic symphonies on the programme? Written at a time when Ligeti was associated with the Fluxus movement, the “poem”, notwithstanding its inherent musical interest, was in part meant to poke fun at formal concert life: it seems absurd that concertgoers have to hear and watch machines normally used only for musical practice exhaust themselves. The touring Bamberg Symphony’s presentation of a piece in which the performers do not get to display their skills to the world as expected, indeed have next to nothing to do, suggests that it either embraced all of its sarcasm or missed some of it, which has among its targets the stuffy concert tradition, as illustrated by the general conservatism of the orchestra’s own tour programmes. Programming the work alongside other avant-garde pieces, as is more often the case, would have diminished its delightful impertinence, in all senses of the word.
Featured image: Bamberg Symphony. Courtesy the Hong Kong Arts Festival.