Afkham, Chen and the RPO – The Wonder of It All

ChinaChina Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler: Ray Chen (violin), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / David Afkham (conductor), Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Shanghai. 7.6.2017. (RP)

Ray Chen © Sophie Zhai

Beethoven Coriolan Overture Op.62

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77

Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D major ‘Titan’

There are concerts that leave me at a loss as to what to write, and this was one of them. What’s not to like about a promising young conductor who, if the fates allow, will go on to even greater things? The program was hardly adventuresome – surefire crowd pleasers. Not that familiarity breeds contempt, but what is there left to say about another fine performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture? Soloists do not end up circling the globe with the world’s great orchestras if they don’t possess fabulous technique and superb musicianship; personality is the differentiating factor. It could be mundane, yet an audience is thrilled and a critic is impressed. The quandary: just how do you explain the wonder of it all?

Starting with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra itself, the horns are superb and richly deserved the ovations they received at both Shanghai concerts. It was only fitting that they must stand at the end of the Mahler. The trumpets are in a class of their own, playing with such taste and refinement. Their off-stage fanfares in the Mahler were impeccable, and the energy they created incalculable. The solo woodwinds are virtuosos in their own right; I’m not sure that I have ever heard a bassoon played with such flare. The string sound is rich and burnished. Are there singers today who can infuse Mahler’s songs with such beauty and emotion as the RPO’s violins and cellos did?

Ray Chen is an elegant violinist who has the ability to express deep emotion through music. There are violinists with flashier stage personas and gutsier sounds, but that is not his style. He tossed off the Brahms first movement’s cadenza with panache and dispatched the double stops of the finale with ease, but the lyrical passages found him at his finest. With the slightest pause as a phrase arches, he can suspend time for just an instant; it does not get any better than that. The Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No.3 was the perfect encore.

What I admire most about David Afkham is that he is willing to take a risk. Born in 1983, he was the first recipient of the Bernard Haitink Fund for Young Talent, and he assisted Haitink in preparing symphony cycles with the Chicago Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. Obviously, he learned a thing or two about scope, structure and detail from such a master, but there is more to his conducting than just proficiency. In the prior concert, it was if he were ‘unleashed’ when he abandoned score and baton and just communicated with his eyes, hands and body. In the Mahler, it was the sheer abandon of letting the raucous, klezmer-like music in the third movement take on a life of its own. It was daring and a bit crazy, but fantastic.

The sole encore was the award-winning ‘Chrysanthemum Terrace’ from the 2006 Chinese film epic, Curse of the Golden Flower. It was one last opportunity to relish the cellos playing a sweeping melody and to delight in the woodwinds tossing snippets of the tune to one another. It brought pure pleasure to the audience. A review can’t do that, but it can make you wish that you had been there.

Rick Perdian

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