Anton Bruckner in Saigon
Artists perform at the Anton Bruckner’s requiem concert hosted by the HBSO in HCMC last week - PHOTO: NGUYEN TAN
“Half simpleton, half god,” said Mahler of Anton Bruckner, the Austrian Catholic composer whose music initially divided the musical world. His Requiem was an early work, completed when he was only 25. I didn’t know it prior to Thursday’s performance in the Saigon Opera House, but when a fellow patron told me he was there “for the Bruckner” I replied I was there “despite the Bruckner”. It was a joke, but I wasn’t expecting instant pleasure because his later symphonies had often seemed to me indigestible, very long and not infrequently somewhat tedious.
In the event, the HBSO’s performance proved a pleasant surprise. Here was south German Romanticism at its sweetest. The Belgian conductor Daniel Gazon had been brought in for the occasion, and the HBSO orchestra and choir, plus four soloists, made it a special occasion indeed.
All went off smoothly, indeed excellently. The placing of the soloists in front of the chorus, but behind the orchestra, had the effect of lessening their impact, so that they were more dominant as an ensemble than as individuals. But soprano Cho Hae Ryong’s silvery tones rang out as usual, and as for tenor Pham Trang, he seems to be getting better and better as the months pass. Alto Nguyen Vu Uyen Di and bass Dao Mac had less occasion to shine in this piece, though the latter was strong in the Benedictus. But the general effect was wonderful nonetheless. The chorus, as always, made an effective presence.
Prior to the Requiem we heard Mozart’s Symphony No: 36, the “Linz”, named after the stunningly-located Austrian city. Mozart was stopping over there, the local count demanded a concert, and Mozart hurriedly penned the symphony in four days. The performance was generally laid-back but stylish. And it was followed by a beautiful piece I’d never heard of, Nicolas Flagello’s Andante Languido for string orchestra. Flagello (1928 – 1994) was an American composer who confined himself to the sonorities of late Romanticism, and this short work had all the sad evocativeness of a lament for the world’s war dead. It was very finely played by the HBSO orchestra.
This was the opening concert of the HBSO’s spring and summer season. What the program revealed was several revivals prior to a major new venture planned for November. There’s the dance triple bill, Ballet with Tchaikovsky and Ravel, later this month, Prokofiev’s full-length ballet Cinderella at the end of April, and the fully-staged opera Die Zauberflote (Mozart’s The Magic Flute) at the end of June. These are all excellent productions and shouldn’t be missed.