A new look at Beethoven

Darell Ang (L) and Iskandar Widjaja performing with the MSO.

By Gideon Isidro

Concert Review
Beethoven Redux
Manila Symphony Orchestra
Nov. 30
Meralco Theater

FOR ITS past few concerts, the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has been focusing on very popular music: Rockestra 2018 mixed classical and rock music, playing “orchestra-fied” works of Metallica and AC/DC, while Silver Screen Symphonies featured music from beloved movies like Star Wars and The Lion King.

The MSO took a detour from the popular with its latest Beethoven Redux, which was performed at the Meralco Theater. Though the chosen composer is indeed most famous, the works the MSO chose to play were Beethoven’s more obscure ones. This may have be distressing to some, but truth be told, this allowed us to take a new look at Beethoven and comprehend the fulness of his musical portfolio.

To further the flavor of reinvention of Beethoven Redux, the MSO decided to play a reworked version of Beethoven’s violin concerto “Par Clemenza pour Clement” (Through Clemency for Clement) by Filipino composer Jeffrey Ching, a musical achiever having awards spanning from Asia to Europe.

For this concert, the MSO was led by Darrell Ang, a sought-out Singaporean conductor who has lead orchestras in over 20 countries around the globe. Finally, the featured soloist for the performance was Iskandar Widjaja, an Indonesian-German violin virtuoso who has performed in five continents and is a celebrity in his home country.

DIFFERENT VENUE, DIFFERENT SOUND
The show started with the Egmont Overture, conducted by Wilson Ong. I noticed that the sound of the orchestra was different, sensing that the midrange and high pitches were louder compared to the orchestra’s previous performances.

The MSO had previously been playing in The Theatre at Solaire, and it turned out that the Meralco Theater had a remarkably different acoustic profile. Scanning the theater to see how the sound would bounce, I saw that the floor was not carpeted and the walls were covered in wood. In the theater by myself later that evening, I clapped and heard the echo of the higher pitched frequencies bounce back more easily. I knocked on the walls and heard a high thump, instead of the low boom generated by concrete. The theater seemed to be designed more for the human voice, which typically highlights the higher frequency sounds.

Sound wise, this was an advantage for the higher pitched instruments. The clarinet particularly sounded sweet; the flute bouncy. The violins might have been too loud for their own good though, as sometimes, I could feel some raspiness when they were being bowed.

In contrast, the large low-pitched instruments were struggling. The bassoons started to garble, similar to when you hear bass on earphones designed for high pitched frequencies. Thankfully, the double bass and cello were not affected that much by this issue. There was usually enough volume in the bass strings to produce that light yet deep accent, although at times, I felt like the violins were overpowering them.

THE ORIGINAL BEETHOVEN
Wilson Ong retired backstage, and in his place came Darell Ang. Iskandar Widjaja followed after. By the time Mr. Ang conducted Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61, the orchestra seemed to have warmed up a little better: I started to hear less and less raspiness, and their dynamics started to become more balanced.

Mr. Widjaja started to play his solo — or, you could even say, emoted his solo. His face was so expressive, you could see that he was not just playing: he was trying to feel every note that he bowed, and deliver every sentiment, both hope and despair, that Beethoven wanted to bring out in the composition. There were even moments where he seemed like he was dancing to the tune.

Mr. Widjaja’s handwork was superb; his left hand was a well-oiled machine, hitting all the right finger positions at the appropriate times, something expected from one who focuses his repertoire on the most difficult compositions of Bach. His bowing was also excellent, transitions from different strings were smooth and had no issue at all. Now I understand why Strad magazine called him “a force of nature.”

As the orchestra continued playing with Widjaja, the violins did not hit a note at the exact same time at one point in the pizzicato, but it was practically unnoticeable, maybe a quarter second difference. It’s also understandable that there’s a challenge in playing violin pizzicato, the strings are so thin, and it’s a rarely practiced technique for the violin. In contrast, the cellos were able to play their pizzicato parts with no mistakes: cellos have thicker strings after all, and pizzicato is more widely played with it.

BEETHOVEN REINVENTED
After the interval, it was finally time to play the world premiere of Jeffrey Ching’s “Par Clemenza pour Clement” (Through Clemency for Clement), a Diptych after Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. It was supposed to mirror Beethoven’s Opus 61 which had just been played by the orchestra, but rebranded in the vision of Mr. Ching.

The piece started out with some foot stomps, followed by seven seconds of Beethoven-sounding orchestral music which opened the way for Mr. Widjaja’s solo which was Post-Modern (experimental) in nature and incorporated a lot of violin playing techniques. In just a short moment he performed double stops, screeching the violin, and pizzicatos. This was then followed by some Beethoven-sounding music lines provided by the orchestra.

From there, the soloist lines and orchestral lines had numerous interactions: they either exchanged music, like a conversation between two people; or the soloist was supported by the orchestra; or, sometimes, the orchestra was doing a counterpoint against the soloist.

As a more traditionalist listener of Classical music, I really have a hard time listening to the amorphous, and sometimes seemingly random nature of the music being played. Setting my tastes aside, I did see that both soloist and the orchestra were doing well. Mr. Widjaja was able to execute every technique that the piece demanded, bringing out the influences from as far as the Middle East, as old as Beethoven’s era, and as new as today. The orchestra executed its classical part well: the musicians were alert in all the exchanges and responded at the correct times.

By the end of the show, the audience stood up to applaud: something that really surprised me, given that I was doubtful about people appreciating the musical selection.

FOR THE POST-MODERN CLASSICAL LOVER
This performance by the MSO seemed to be the most practiced so far, and I highly commend them for their continuous dedication to their craft. I don’t think the change in venue was for the best though, as the acoustic profile of the theater just doesn’t fit a symphonic orchestra. If the MSO were to go for string quartets or concertos though, they might find the Meralco Theater a feasible place to play.

Personally, I prefer that the MSO stick to the more popular works, or reinventing the more popular works of Beethoven like his most well-known 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies, maybe even a Moonlight Sonata reworked for orchestra; but, hey, it’s their choice and the audience did, surprisingly, end up liking the performance.

Setting aside my preference for the more popular Beethoven works, I’d say well-versed fans of Beethoven and lovers of more Post-Modern flavors of Classical music would have definitely liked this well-performed show.

I give MSO’s Beethoven Redux show a 4.5 out of 5 stars.








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