It was music 'to enchant' the ear
By RUTH BINGHAM
Special to The Advertiser
By RUTH BINGHAM
After more than 200 years, Beethoven endures as one of the biggest draws in classical music.
Thus, the Honolulu Symphony, under the direction of Maestro Samuel Wong, dedicated the second half of Friday's concert to Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, last performed just a few years ago.
"We get you in the door with Beethoven's Seventh," associate conductor Joan Landry remarked before the concert, "but we want to enchant you with some unusual music."
Hence, the first half of the concert: Prokofiev's less well-known Violin Concerto No. 2, featuring the symphony's concertmaster Ignace Jang; and Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," familiar mostly to band and wind ensemble audiences, neither likely to draw an audience on its own.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Beethoven proved to be the audience favorite, even though Friday's performance of it was less polished than those of the Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Beethoven's ability to captivate an audience — still! — remains one of his most remarkable features.
Of course, to appreciate Beethoven fully, one must understand what classical music at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries was supposed to sound like, because Beethoven's music doesn't sound anything like that. Audiences of the 1810s must have thought he had lost his mind.
The Seventh is full of what the eminent musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called "purple patches"— confounding mysteries juxtaposed with pastoral simplicities.
Even as audiences enjoy the unfolding musical drama, they are surprised and delighted, wondering, "Where did that come from? What's he doing? He can't do that!" And yet, somehow, inexplicably, it all works.
To his credit, Wong did not try to gloss over Beethoven's oddities, to constrain them into a nice-and-normal straitjacket. Instead, he reveled in them, allowing them full rein to startle and amaze.
Friday's opening was rough, as though the orchestra was not quite ready, and was saved only by a series of solos by oboist Scott Janusch. Throughout the first movement, exuberance trumped balance and ensemble, but Wong and the orchestra soon pulled together and closed the work triumphantly, amid cheers.
The first half of Friday's concert offered the strongest performances — especially Jang's.
Jang, now in his ninth season with the Honolulu Symphony and a featured violin soloist almost every year, took a moment before the concert to describe his two roles — "As concertmaster, the best job you can do is make the conductor's ideas come through. As soloist, you can afford to be more egotistical" — eliciting laughter.
As odd as that may sound, Jang was explaining a crucial difference between the two roles' playing styles.
A concertmaster leads and blends into an ensemble, acting as an intermediary between conductor and orchestra.
A soloist stands out from the ensemble and communicates directly with audience and conductor.
Jang played with cool precision, his roomy, deep, three-dimensional tone clearly audible above the orchestra.
His opening statement was particularly arresting.
A physically quiet performer, he dazzled with technique — clean harmonics, arching lyricism, rapid-fire passagework.
On Friday, Jang seemed to inhabit a world between concertmaster and soloist: He played wonderfully but didn't "sell," and the Prokofiev, like many concertos, needs selling. There are many ways to create that magical connection between soloist and audience that marks star performers, and each soloist needs to find what works for him or her. Jang appears to have that potential, but is still developing it, which meant that Friday's audience was appreciative but not as wildly enthusiastic as his performance merited.
The opening work by Stravinsky, which Wong described as a "bizarre masterpiece," featured the symphony's wind instruments and their dry, crisp timbres. It was a kind of reverse-variations, in which the ending chorale slowly emerged out of the colors, textures and rhythms in the sections that came before.
"It's not really a symphony," Wong explained. "It's more like microcosms of symphonies.
"It's an austere kind of beauty, not a crowd-pleasing kind of beauty.
"I wish I could play it twice for you."
I wished so, as well: It was a wonderful piece, full of striking sonorities, and showcasing many of the symphony's finest soloists.