KVT – R Strauss Hits it Big Time @ Nha Hat Lon

KVT – R Strauss Hits it Big Time @ Nha Hat Lon

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KVT 2013

KVT can’t get enough of the VNSO

If Thursday night at the Opera House is a taste of what’s to come form the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra in 2014 -as they get going into their Richard Strauss Cycle- then we are in for a lot of gourmet musical meals.

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They called last week’s performances a Pre Concert as a pre taste of the cycle (next year is the 150 year of Strauss’ birth). Giving the orchestra huge depth and adding expertise were a group of players from Norway and Japan. A violinist, horn player and harpist from Japan and a flutist, bassoonist, horn player, trumpeter, trombonist, and tuba player from the wintry depths of Scandinavia. coached sections of the orchestra during rehearsals and played on stage with them.

But first things first

As a particularly sublime entrée to the adventure with Strauss, very world renowned harpist, Yoshino Naoko joined our local flute expert, Nguyen Dieu Hong, and gave us Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp accompanied by the string ensemble, oboes and horns.

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The Concerto is more often heard played as a flute solo or harp solo which is why it is so readily recognizable. It’s always a crowd pleaser. The combination of flute and harp is a difficult one and I like Ethan Mordenn’s description: they sound like a nymph going bonkers in a plashing spring.

It was a Vietnam premiere of the composition, as it was originally intended, give or take a cadenza or two.

It’s in the last movement that you realize the intense concentration demanded of the soloists. Lots of attractive tunes flow and at times you are a bit breathless as they parade before you. The horns have time to shine as well.

All in all a sensuous listening experience. Here’s link to the concerto for those who would like a reminder of its appeal


And another link to see Yoshino Naoko in delicious recital

Then that wonderful conductor Ong Honna led a super sized orchestra that filled the stage to overflowing, in what would have to be one of the very best performances I’ve heard them give. It was bravo from start to finish; the whole engrossing 50 minutes. Even the soloists from the Concerto donned their black dresses and joined the throng for another sparkling,Vietnamese premiere.

Strauss composed his tone poem, ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (The Hero) in 1898, in his mid thirties, and the jury is still out about whether it’s autobiographical or a description of any good artist’s life.

It’s in six parts without a break. When I first heard it broadcast as part of the 2011 BBC Proms I thought it was pretty good, but hearing it live played by an extra good orchestra was enough to make my heart do a series of cartwheels.

The opening 4 minutes introduces the young, idealistic Hero in a grand manner with many sides of his character shown. It’s late romantic music nicely elaborated. It soars and reminds you of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ and when the Hero heads off to youthful adventure blazing trumpets herald his departure.

Then comes the part when the jealous and the critical start to undermine the Hero’s self esteem and attempt to singe his wings. It’s one of the few times a composer set out to savage those who demeaned his work and he did it with great wit. The rasping woodwinds yelp of petty spite and the tubas set them up as pompous bores. When they regroup to get revenge a fanfare of brass puts them in their place though for the rest of the work they hover and bite and bitch at the peripheries.

The long third part tells of how the Hero finds solace and balm for his wounds from his beloved. Strauss says that it is a portrait of his soprano wife who eventually ended up sharing his ups and downs for 50 years. By all accounts ‘she was a formidable, mercurial, complex woman,’ and she is represented in operatic style by a violin magically played by the guest concert mistress, Japanese, Hayashi Nana, who revealed the wife’s moods dynamically… ‘languishing, merry, frivolous, sentimental, high spirited, sharp, playful, amiable, angry, nagging, and full of immense love’. Finally the music swells and, after a sensuous fanfare of trumpets, a voluptuous love scene ensues brought to an end by the critics goading the Hero into battle.

Which he takes to with a fabulous will with 8 minutes of some of the most furious cacophonous, dissonant and noisy battle stuff ever composed that had my hair standing on end had me wanting to stand up and cheer him on in his quest, The real music critics of the day really got stuck into Strauss about this piece but the audiences weren’t in any mood to take notice of them

The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise [Ein Heldenleben], no longer deserving of the word music, is either lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy. –Musical Courier, 1899

With the critics mostly vanquished, the Hero completes the deeds that the conquering and the valiant can set their expansive minds to when at peace. Strauss does this by using, in 6 minutes, about 30 quotations from his musical output thus far in his life. It’s peaceful, at times soaring, and only uses love themes. Even so the critics make another brief attack and rouse his anger and self doubt.

All good and great heroes must eventually fade into the sunset and ours does just that in 12 minutes. The harp, bassoon, horn and strings give an air of uncertainty before a gentle pastoral by the English horn lulls you into bucolic mood and a lone violin plays a peaceful, song like cadenza before a trumpet fanfare that is reminiscent of the opening motto from his tone poem, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ – which just about everyone knows from ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’- allows the Hero deserved rest.

Strauss conducted the work for the last time in his life in 1944.

Here’s a link to a different but equally good orchestra playing the whole glorious thing

As I said at the beginning, if the VNSO is ending 2013 on such a strong note, we’re in for some great symphonic nights next year with the same prolonged, enthusiastic response from audiences. Richard Strauss composed, as he would have said to his critics if he’d known today’s colloquial slang, MUSIC TO DIE FOR!

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And if you really want to end the year on a high note book a seat quick for either Dec 26 or 27 when great talent from Japan, China, Taiwan, North Korea and South Korea join hands with the VNSO. Beethoven’s Ninth could really knock your socks off!

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.


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