Great Performances?

What makes a great performance? That’s a common enough question which every critic and most music-lovers have at some time or other asked themselves, and the answers are as numerous and vague as the number of people asking the question in the first place.

I can’t begin to give an answer, but the question raised its head again last night when I sat through the HKPO concert and thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t the person charged with reviewing it. Apart from the dire and dreary Black Gondola – John Adams’ bleak version of the even bleaker piano piece by Liszt (a work which long since should have sunk without trace below the waters of the Grand Canal) – which nobody liked, the rest of the concert revealed a total divergence of views between me and most of the audience. Sarah Chang made a hideous sound on her violin. Excruciating vibrato took us way off the note, odd and uneven tone destroyed any sense of lyricism and a disconcerting habit of sweeping the floor with her bow after every long down bow made this a performance of the Bruch of rare unpleasantness. Sat beside two English musicians stranded in Hong Kong because of the Volcanic Ash and making the best of their forced sojourn, one blamed the violin and the other blamed the hall; they may be right, but I’ve heard many violin concertos in the Cultural Centre auditorium and none has sounded anything like as grotesque as this, and if it was the violin, why hadn’t Sarah stamped on it years ago and claimed a new one off the insurance?

We were in a minority of three. The rest of the audience hollered and screamed, leapt to their feet and roared their disapproval when time and time again she refused (thankfully) an encore. Singapore audience rest assured, she was no better to the Hong Kong crowd than she was to you last week. The difference was, though, the audience reception. The Hong Kong crowd LOVED her. They swooned, they gasped, they did everything except rip off their clothes and rush the stage (although the massed and rapid exodus to get first in the queue for her autograph came pretty close to that). What did they see in this performance which I didn’t? Am I hyper-critical in my old age? Am I unable to distinguish the great from the dismal? I can’t find an answer and I’d love someone to tell me what there was about this performance which moved so many people so profoundly yet left me stone cold? A cynic might suggest that it was because she is Chinese, but that would be too cynical for even my jaundiced brain, wouldn’t it?

I have to say that the Brahms 1 which followed was a revelation. True, it was attended by half the previous audience, the rest having decided to wait outside in the hope of grabbing a view of the vision-in-pink which was La Chang. But while the conductor , a little-known maestro from Milwaukee called Andreas Delfs (whose biography is so littered with phrases like “Garnering accolades” and “electrifying podium presence” and proud boasts such as him being the first to “distribute live recordings online through iTunes”, that we would normally assume that he’s not up to much) adopted what I would describe as the “Gilbert Kaplan” approach to Brahms – weird and disconcerting tempo shifts and sudden moments of elevated inspiration which didn’t always communicate easily. Quirks and idiosyncrasies aside, he certainly inspired me and at the end I was breathless with excitement. This guy Delfs knows a thing or two about pulling something out of the hat when it matters, and an extraordinarily enthusiastic fellow behind me clearly reckoned this a “great” performance. For me it was memorable and exceptionally exciting (for Brahms 1), but certainly not great. The mass of the audience, however, seemed to be glad it was over, so desperate were they to get out of the auditorium in case a left-over echo of the music found its way back in and soured their fond memories of La Chang.

I can remember great occasions – Messiaen in Cardiff, Klemperer doing Mahler 2, Oistrakh doing Beethoven in London – and performances which I would have dubbed great – Bamert doing Korngold Sinfonietta with the MPO, Groves doing Belshazzar’s Feast at the Three Choirs, Soderstrom doing Strauss in Vienna – but not everybody would agree with me in any of those instances. I recall Alun Hoddinott tearing me off a strip for standing up at the Messiaen concert (“It was dreary”), Alyn Shipton suggesting I was “off my rocker” by getting so het up over Klemperer and Simon Cobcroft speechless with astonishment at my gushing admiration for Bamert’s Korngold. But, for me, these were truly great performances.

Perhaps the Hong Kong audience really did find Chang’s Bruch in that league. I’d love to know.


2 Responses to “Great Performances?”

  1. April 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    So I was not too far off in my negative assessment of Sarah Chang’s Bruch! It’s all that hype with her multiple recordings that have led audiences astray. What they hear in recordings is doctored, and they imagine the same in “live” performances. And they go simply wild. By the way, Sarah’s not Chinese but Korean. But what’s the difference anyway?

    Sorry, La Chang appears quite exhausted playing the same old boring concertos for audiences who are just waiting to lap up whatever she has to offer, which is not a lot. There are no more challenges for her. Just play what you like, pick up the cheque and go for yet another shopping spree. Where better than in HK or Singapore? What about a performance of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto sometime?

  2. 2 Devi Singh
    April 30, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Wah! She’s American, actually. But who cares. She looks great in pink 😉

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