Kahchun Wong conducts the Dresdner Philharmonie in a fine symphonic concert season opener

GermanyGermany Prangcharoen, Elgar, R. Strauss: Gautier Capuçon (cello), Dresdner Philharmonie / Kahchun Wong (conductor). Kulturpalast, Dresden, 2.9.2023. (CC)

Kahchun Wong rehearsing the Dresdner Philharmonie

Narong Prangcharoen (b.1973) – Reflection of Shadow (2023, world premiere)
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor (1919)
R. StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra (1896)

The last time I was in Dresden’s Kulturpalast was for a revelatory performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on period instruments conducted by Kent Nagano. Now, it was time for the season opening of the Dresdner Philharmonie (a podcast introducing this concert is available in German-only at the Dresden orchestra’s own website).

The new Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, Kahchun Wong, was recently announced as the new Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Hallé Orchestra from the 2024/25 season. In taking up that post in Manchester, Wong become part of a lineage that stretches back to Sir Charles Hallé himself, on through Sir John Barbirolli, Kent Nagano, Stanisław Skriwaczewski and Sir Mark Elder. From what I heard in Dresden, this is good news for the Hallé: key characteristics of Wong’s conducting are clarity of beat, superb textural elucidation and a real sense of both flow and structural understanding.

Wong was born in Singapore in 1986; his connections with Germany were solidified by his victory at the 2016 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition; subsequently he became Principal Conductor of the Nürnberg Symphoniker from 2018, a post he held until last year.

It is telling that Wong launched the Dresden season with a work by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen especially commissioned for this opening pair of concerts, Reflection of Shadow (the title is in English). Prangcharoen won a Gugenheim Fellowship in 2013 and is also the recipient of Yoshino Irino Memorial Award.

Prangcharoen’s musical awakening dates back to his school days in Thailand, when he was a member of a wind ensemble. He then studied the piano and went on to study composition in Illinois, USA; today he is Dean of Mahidol University in Thailand as well as Composer-in-Residence of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and Artistic Director of the Thailand International Composition Festival. Some of Prangcharoen’s works have been inspired by climate change and the resultant natural disasters.

The new piece, Refection of Shadow, concerns itself with the interaction of different lighting effects, reflections and shadows, phenomena that are intertwined and interdependent. The composer refers to foundational motifs found in two groups of five notes, groupings that ‘reflect’ each other via intervallic symmetry. The play of light and shadow is revealed via the expansion of this basic material.

The piece begins arrestingly, with a sonic representation of the shattering of a mirror-like object by a violent impact, which itself serves as the catalyst for the examination of broken ‘fragments’, this enabling a musical narrative to emerge from chaos. Along the way, a famous Thai melody is heard.

So much for the theory and structure. The music begins in a hugely gestural manner – the performance was superbly directed by Kahchun Wong, the result certainly sonically colourful. There is no doubting Prangcharoen’s ability to orchestrate. A plethora of effects were present, from flutter tonguing to glissando to the effective use of spatial separation of instruments and groups. Listening to the more difficult corners of this work, one had to wonder how much rehearsal had been allocated as ensemble was just so tight. Musically, though, the piece felt somewhat shallow in its procession of stock gestures one might have heard (indeed, one did very much hear) in modernist orchestral scores of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The arrival of the Thai tune (perceptible to an extent in the background prior to the ‘great reveal’) did feel studied however – somewhat unnatural. Against this, almost filmic, modernist gestures created an opposing musical view, an overall vocabulary that was perhaps there to enable us to hear the Thai melody with a sense of some nostalgia. In the end, though, it all felt rather underwhelming, and the reliance on gesture for much of the piece made its 12-minute duration feel overlong.

Readers interested in Prangcharoen’s music might be interested in a recording of his exciting piano piece Pact Ink on an Albany disc entitled Paganimania in a stunning performance by pianist Christopher Janwong McKiggan (the title refers to the ink used to sign a pact with the Devil) while Ambiguous Traces juxtaposes a post-Stravinskian aridity with references to Thai music (there is a recorded performance on Albany, but the same performers, the Pan Pacific Ensemble, can he heard in this piece on YouTube). That mix of East and West informs his Bencharong for flute, cello and piano (recorded on the Innova label and heard in live performance by the same performers, Jennie Oh Brown, Kurt Fowler, and Jennifer Blyth, also on YouTube.). An entire disc of Prangcharoen’s music can be found on Albany 1322.

Whatever one’s thoughts on Reflection of Shadow, there is no doubting the stature of the Elgar as a piece, though; and here absolutely everything came together. In performance terms – as a UK-based journalist I have heard this piece many times on its home turf – never have I heard a performance as fine as this Dresden one. Kahchun Wong’s conducting was a miracle of textural elucidation. Both soloist Gautier Capuçon (Artist-in-Residence with the Dresden Philharmonic) and Wong had surely agreed on an approach that foregrounded momentum and transparency – there was no unnecessary heaviness here whatsoever. Capuçon’s playing was marked by its eloquence in the first movement (and was equalled by that of the solo clarinet), while the overall impression was of a quasi-symphonic dialogue. Interesting, too, how the pizzicato spread chords on the solo cello sounded almost modern in Capuçon’s hands. The elusive gestures that open the second movement held much mystery, scherzo passages were playful, while the Adagio was a time-suspending dream balanced by the rhythmic bounce of the finale. A truly mesmeric performance shot through with multiple revelations.

Interestingly, the first performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto by the Dresden orchestra did not occur until March 1970, when Heinrich Schiff was the soloist, and Antoni Wit conducted (the most recent was Daniel Müller-Schott as soloist with Christian Măcelaru conducting, in November 2019), making this their first post-pandemic Elgar Cello Concerto.

The encore was just as special. After a short speech, Capuçon gave us the Catalan-inspired Song of the Birds by Pablo Casals, a piece for peace, as it were, against war, and here dedicated to the people of Ukraine. Performed under a spotlight, this was truly touching (and, it should be noted, technically faultless).

Kahchun Wong conducted Richard Strauss’s iconic Also sprach Zarathustra by memory, and perfectly. The opening was positively chthonic, a deep grounding for the trumpet’s famous opening. If the trumpets were not entirely unanimous of attack, ensuing chords and textures were once more perfectly balanced, the arrival of the organ (placed to the left of the conductor at the back) making maximal effect. Rarely have I heard double bass tremolos holding such keen impact, either. The serene, glowing textures of ‘Von den Hinterwäldern’ (Of the forest-dwellers) were but one part of a musical jigsaw, an emotional roller-coaster, from ’Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften’ – Of joys and passions – to ‘Das Grablied’ – the funeral song, to that remarkable, parodistic fugue. It was especially notable how Wong retained a sense of High Romanticism while maintaining a firm hand on the rhythmic tiller. The whole gamut of emotions was here. True, there was the occasional ragged corner, but how the ‘Tanzlied’ (Dance Song) glittered. Solo violin contributions, by Heike Janicke, were uniformly superb: expressive, in tune, and perfectly projected.

There was much phenomenal music-making here. It is the Elgar that lingers longest in the memory, for sure, but there is no doubting Wong’s grasp of Richard Strauss’s soundworld.

Incidentally, one of the most notable aspects of the evening was the silence of the audience while the music was being played. This was probably more noticeable from an audience member more used to the restlessness (and electronic device-addicted behaviour) of UK audiences, but it was a truly magnificent experience to not only concentrate on the music without unnecessary interruption, but also to participate in what was effectively group meditation.

A fine opening concert to Dresden’s symphonic concert season, then.

Colin Clarke

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