Review: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 3 & 8

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HK Phil disappoints as rumours of van Zweden’s departure arise

Touted as the classical music event of the year and a ‘monumental experience for music lovers’, the HK Philharmonic’s Beethoven symphony cycle – split into four concerts – dominates its 2015/16 programme. Conquering all nine masterpieces in a single season is like winning the Grand Slam in tennis or scaling the Seven Summits of the World – the challenge is tremendous, and the expectations are sky high. Can music director Jaap van Zweden deliver?

We go to the cycle’s opening concert on November 11, which began with Symphony No. 8. Light-hearted and full of humour and zest, the so-called ‘little Symphony in F’ was said to be the composer’s personal favourite among the nine. But you wouldn’t have guessed that from sitting in the audience that night. While the accents and dynamics were all there (van Zweden’s reading of the piece was meticulous), there was not an ounce of energy from the orchestra. The musicians’ minds were someplace else -- they played the notes on the page but hardly communicated the music. The result was a dull rendition that put half the room to sleep. There were murmurs among the audience as to what had happened -- some speculated that members of the ensemble might have gotten into an argument in the green room just before going onstage.

After botching the Eighth, the HK Phil attempted the even more forbidding Third in the second half of the evening. Steeped in history and imbued with complex emotions, the ‘Eroica Symphony’ is not something to tinker with. One wrong note – especially in the tightly composed first movement – and the performance falls apart. Sure enough, serious tempo issues began to surface as soon as the two tutti opening chords were sounded. Repeated false starts by the lead oboe were followed by a near-complete decoupling between the woodwind and the strings. Jumping up and down on the podium, van Zweden struggled to rein in two runaway trains at the same time. Whether the climactic brass passage in the second movement should be explosive or subdued might have been a matter of interpretation, but the decision to go with the latter (which ended up obscuring the heroic theme altogether) only added to the evening’s disappointment.

As if the rumoured backstage scuffles had finally blown over, the orchestra regained its footing in the third and fourth movements. The second half of Symphony No. 3 was rendered with more conviction, salvaging the evening and preventing it from becoming a total loss. It was a shame that the HK Phil had chosen to make a dressed rehearsal out of the opening night of a highly anticipated programme.

Having conducted the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center’s two weeks earlier, van Zweden got a standing ovation from the hard-to-impress New York crowd, as if they were welcoming one of their own. The one-night-only performance received a glowing review by the New York Times, which called his conducting ‘precise, inventive... [and] imaginative.’ All that has spawned speculations that van Zweden had been tapped to succeed Alan Gilbert as the NYPO’s music director after the 2016/17 season. Putting two and two together, could it be that van Zweden had broken the news of his impending departure to the HK Phil just before the Beethoven concert? That would perhaps explain the musicians’ collective disengagement that evening...

Author: Jason Y. Ng

Nov 11

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