Making an Effort

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also. – Igor Stravinsky

15th August – Asian Youth Orchestra, Steven Isserlis and James Judd

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Orchestra: Asian Youth Orchestra

Conductor: James Judd

Cello: Steven Isserlis

Soprano: Mamiko Sakaida

Venue: Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall

Bach (arr. Stokowski) – Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Shostakovitch Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat, Opus107

Mahler Symphony no. 4

While spending a relaxing Saturday going to a shopping mall after the first week back at work, I spotted a poster in the MTR (Mass Transit Railway i.e. the underground train) advertising an orchestral concert and noticed someone with remarkably curly hair on the poster. I paused and realised it was Steven Isserlis who was performing with the Asian Youth Orchestra. Thankfully, I looked at the date and saw that it was that weekend and I might not be too late. When I arrived back home, I quickly went onto the ticketing site and bought a ticket. Phew! Although many tickets had been sold, there were still a few left for Saturday evening. I was also fortunate that it was also the programme that I was especially interested in seeing.

The concert opened with Bach Toccata and Fugue which was orchestrated by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski was a British conductor who was the founder of several orchestras in the U.S.A and is well known to many as the conductor in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. Listening to his arrangement of this very well known Bach piece had the comfort of familiarity and all the orchestral grandeur that the music possesses.

Next was Shostakovitch Cello Concerto No.1 with Steven Isserlis as soloist. Isserlis is no stranger to Hong Kong and also performed with the AYO a couple of years ago. This concerto was originally composed for Mstislav Rostrapovich who performed its premiere in Leningrad. This first movement started with a four note Shostakovitch motif with tension and the tune by the cello unrelentingly driving forward. The theme continued to cycle through the piece by other instruments, notably the french horn. The second movement started in a softly melancholic manner with strings and horn before the cello played its mournful song with the clarinet joining in. The second cello melody seems playful at times but gets more fierce before returning to the original theme. Between the second and final movements is a cello cadenza. Unfortunately, this was interrupted a little by applause (There was applause after the first movement – which most people can forgive if the music is quite rousing!). The final movement sees the return of the theme and a modified version of it before ending abruptly with several strokes of the timpani. The horn player and clarinettist performed the solos extremely well with clear entrances. Both of these musicians were recognised by Judd and Isserlis and were singled out to stand for applause – rightly so!

Mahler’s 4th symphony opened with a folksong theme using sleigh bells and flute, which recurred throughout the movement. It became more tumultuous later on with the violins before returning to a more cheerful and soothing melody. The second movement is a dance with a darker sounding part from the solo violin which was projected well. The slow third movement seems calming at first but becomes darker with the incorporation of strings and brass before continuing in a sweeter theme; a precursor to the final movement. In the last movement the orchestra sounded triumphant and the soprano seemed to suddenly appear. I had not noticed if she had been sitting quietly amongst the orchestra or crept onstage unnoticed. Dressed in a stark white dress Sakaida stood out in the grey background of the orchestra. She swayed along to the music before joining in with a sweet and joyful song.

At the end of the concert, AYO musicians were called by the founder, Richard Pontzious to stand up as their country of origin was called out. It was good to see so many countries represented, even if there were only one or two from one place.

Sitting at the autograph table with Steven Isserlis

Sitting at the autograph table with Steven Isserlis

If you’re interested in the music here are some  Spotify links:

BBC Philharmonic – Bach(arr. Stokowski) – Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko & Truls Mork – Shostakovitch Cello Concerto

Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra – Mahler Symphony No.4


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