Da-da-da-darr plus rarities: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

July 4, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Beethoven’s fifth symphony, a Verdi overture and a Prokofiev violin concerto made a perfectly balanced program for the Masters Series SSO concert last night. And that was before the bonus attractions of a female Chinese conductor and a celebrated Russian/Israeli violinist.

Xiang Zhang

Female conductors are rare and so are Chinese conductors, making Xian Zhang doubly rare.

And as if that wasn’t unusual enough, she learned music by playing a piano built by her father. She brings to Sydney an impressive record of appearances with leading orchestras around the world., For me, her background raised interesting questions. How would she interpret the music – especially Beethoven’s fifth? Would Xian Zhang put her personal stamp of difference on it, or would she go safe and conventional?

The violin soloist, Vadim Gluzman, came with an interesting back story too. He was born in the former Soviet Union in 1973 but grew up in Latvia before moving to Israel in 1990. He comes from a musical family and began playing the violin at age seven. Among his distinguished teachers and mentors was Isaac Stern. Gluzman is an internationally celebrated soloist with an impressive list of appearances and, not unexpectedly, plays a Stradivarius fiddle – in this case, a 1690 build once owned and played by Leopold Auer. The bow he uses is also rare and valuable. It was made by a French luthier, Dominique Peccatte circa 1850.

Vladamir Gluzman

Verdi’s overture for The Force of Destinyopened the program. Since it presents a summary of the opera that follows, there are references to some of the main arias, along with the promise of plenty of drama, tragedy and bloodshed. In a musical sense, this overture is not developmentally profound, but rather does the job for which it was intended. It also demonstrates that Giuseppe Verdi knew his way around orchestral writing.

Xian Zhang’s scurrying arrival on the podium had a certain comedy about it. How could a diminutive Chinese lady, dressed in a regulation black suit, put a chilli you-know-where to make this fully stocked orchestra rear up on its hind legs? Yet that’s exactly what she did. The Verdi overture sprang to life with enterprising zest. Within a minute I realised that Xian Zhang was one of the most exciting guest conductors we’d seen in front of the SSO. I couldn’t wait for her take on Beethoven.

Unlike some other violin concertos, Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 doesn’t leave the soloist cooling his or her high heels while the orchestra gobbles the start-up attention. The opening bars are all soloist, playing a soulful Russian folk tune which returns throughout the first and second movements. By the third movement, we move into Spanish idiom, including castanets – remembering that Prokofiev wrote the concerto on tour around Europe and premiered it in Madrid in 1935.

Vadim Gluzman’s playing turned out to be just as uplifting as Xian Zhang’s conducting. From the opening solo passage, with his Strad singing like a call from heaven, he was in complete control. The Prokofiev second violin concerto is as technically demanding as it is melodically rich, with few furloughs for the soloist and extended passages of tricky double-stopping. Gluzman turned in a peerless performance.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Although the SSO hadn’t performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 for two and a half years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Opera House stunning rendition last November was still fresh in my mind. Xian Zhang had a hard act to follow. But by now, I was expecting something out of the box – and I got it. She followed a totally different path to Tognetti, taking the pianissimo markings down to a whisper so that they could then bloom into gigantic climaxes. While these were satisfyingly explosive, other passages wove magic through seldom-heard legato playing. And when the trombones (added to a symphony orchestra for the first time by Beethoven) were raised to detonate the finale, I was flying.

This was the first of four performances and I anticipate that the Beethoven will be even better as it beds down. Xian Zhang’s interpretation imposes some fresh demands on the orchestra that will benefit from more outings.


2 Responses to “Da-da-da-darr plus rarities: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Antoine Veling says:

    The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 with guest conductor Xian Zhang at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on Saturday 6th July 2019.

    They deserved their ovation on Saturday night. And more. For our SSO, led by guest conductor Xian Zhang, had just finished performing Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 that could be argued was one of the finest deliveries of this well known symphony.

    Looking as if Xian could do with a podium double the standard height, it was soon evident her small statue was no impediment to her vivacious and forthright conducting. However, it was Xian’s come-hither coaxing of ensemble entries with her beckoning middle finger that allowed this performance to show what a huge dynamic range this symphony actually possesses. Certainly Beethoven built-in a large range in sound – the woodwind section stretches from piccolo to contrabassoon – but Xian had the SSO deliver that breadth in range perfectly.

    A great example of the dynamics eked out by Xian was the lead up to the last movement. It was the quietest playing I have ever heard from the SSO. Then it went quieter some more. This added a haunting menace to the music and gave the entrance of the trombones the impact of a sonic boom!

    The SSO’s playing was far more nuanced as they shaped their sound too. At times the sound trickled across the orchestra from the rear violins to the double basses like wind weaving its way through a field of wheat. In 2016, under Vladimir Ashkenazy, the SSO looked like a bunch of Olympic athletes in a battle for Gold. They performed very physically, putting their whole bodies to work to get all the notes out. This time they seemed far more nuanced in their delivery letting their instruments do more of the work.

    It was brilliant! As the audience left the Concert Hall they talked amongst themselves about the experience. How much of the success we heard was due to the conductor? How much was due to the SSO? Much could be placed on the shoulders of Xian but a violin player’s view, expressed to me as we walked to our cars afterwards, was that it was all SSO.

    I can see why Xian is so very popular around the world. A visiting conductor must be able to build rapport quickly with a new orchestra and get the best from them in a short duration. My view is Xian was fortunate to find in the SSO a very fine ensemble of players that gave her the freedom she needed to deliver her interpretation of Beethoven’s great work of art. And that they all did together in spades…

  2. Mr. Halas Peter says:

    Great review Fraser. I agree with all your comments. The conductor was extraordinary.
    Peter Halas

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