Monday, August 06, 2007

BBC Summer Proms

[Update: just found out from Alexander Kobrin's own website that he has upcoming performances scheduled for Hong Kong (Sheung Wan Cultural Centre) and Singapore, but none really near where I am! Those of you based in HK are such lucky so-and-sos!]

With the dreary thundery weather in this August bank holiday weekend where most if not all of the usual outdoor festivities, from rock concerts to the world cultural festival, were forced to cancel, and with flooding in some city centre streets, there was nothing much that anyone could do but stay indoors and mope. It turned out now that both of the long weekends this summer in Dublin have been a complete wash-out: the one in June when my family and I headed to the Bloom festival in Phoenix Park hoping for views of lovely show gardens rivaling those at the Chelsea Garden Show, and came back with muddy trousers from trudging through miles of mucky paths and much-lowered expectations of what the Dublin version could achieve (we did bought a couple of lovely pot plants though!).

The BBC summer proms is therefore a godsend in the given circumstances this long weekend. I don't normally watch classical music on television but through channel-surfing I chanced upon the BBC Summer Proms and caught a glimpse of the Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin performing, and I was immediately mesmerised...

The piece was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Flat Major. The orchestra was the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) in Britain, with Mark Elder as the conductor. The setting was the Royal Albert Hall. Other than having been to the Royal Albert Hall about a decade ago to see Madame Butterfly with two Japanese friends when I was an undergrad, and other than having heard a few Prokofiev pieces being played in concerts I've been to at the National Concert Hall here in Dublin, I had really no knowledge of the actual musicians nor of the piece itself prior to my witnessing the performance.

How delightfully surprised I was then by this utterly magical performance! Alexander Kobrin was electrifying in his piano-playing, with completely assured control of the keyboard and the rhythm, expressively articulating the strength of emotions without letting them grotesquely overtake his demeanour the way Lang Lang's performance of a similarly boisterous piece did (My sister and I saw Lang Lang in Dublin last year and I came away rather disgusted at his overbearing theatricality, even though we still obtained his autograph and had a photo with him!).

But the thing that really entralled me about his performance, and the reason I thank the Lord for this BBC television broadcast, is the sheer chemistry between Alexander Kobrin the pianist and Mark Elder the conductor and the National Youth Orchestra as a whole. The endings and beginnings of phrases were communicated by the slight raising of the eyes to meet the conductor's, each watching the other's body language, both closely observed by the orchestra, and all telepathically played right on cue and created an integrally sublime piece of music.

I'm really grateful to the BBC because what I was able to watch on screen at home was much more than I could have seen if I had to get a ticket to go to the Royal Albert Hall instead, even if I could shell out big bucks for the good ones. I wouldn't have been able to see by close-up the pianist's hands on the keyboard and how he really interpreted the piece (unless I was right up front, but then I would lose out on the sound quality). I wouldn't have been able to immediately locate the different soloists in the different sections when their turn came, and much less see their facial expressions (hitherto I had thought that there is no real need to see a classical musician's performance, that hearing is far more important; after this though, I'm beginning to think differently as I was as much affected by their physical expressions as the aural). What's more, being unfamiliar with this piece myself, I would have been at quite a bit of a loss (especially given that I just missed the very beginning of it), if the BBC hadn't been quite so kind and thoughtful as to provide live on-screen performance notes via its digital service. This is really such a wonderful use of digital technology - I was able to follow the ups and downs of the whole piece because at each change of pace and at each appearance of new figures there are notes right at the bottom of the screen to explain what is happening. This help me appreciate the performance much more in real time, rather than my usual concert-going experience of listening with my own mind and then vainly trying to match my memories to the descriptions in the concert programme afterwards.

At the end of their performance, I couldn't help but applaud even though I was sitting in my own home rather than at the actual venue, but Kobrin really deserved all the rapturous applause he got from the appreciative RAH audience. There is indeed immense athleticism and energy in Kobrin's playing, but not at all the showy kind, which is as rare as finding a genuine good-looking guy who is also genuinely down-to-earth rather than behaving as if he's God's gift to women (hah, I think I finally hit the nail on the head now as to why I dislike Lang Lang so much in spite of his obvious talent - it is really his vanity, performing as if he's God's gift to music!).

I would be watching out for Alexander Kobrin in future and would fight to get a ticket to hear him again (incidentally, Kobrin, being born in 1980, is one year younger than my brother! If only my brother's as talented and humble!). It's really sweet when, at the end of the performance and he was presented with a bouquet of red flowers, he passed it to the leader of the orchestra, a young Chinese woman who heads the violin section. It's only at the end of the performance when I realise from the presenter's voiceovers that the orchestra is a youth orchestra comprising of musicians between the ages of 13 to 18!!! OMG, 13 to 18 and they are already playing as great as they did!! I really wouldn't have guessed at their age during their performance as they all looked so mature and professional! The Chinese girl was later interviewed by the presenter during the interval along with one of her NYO colleagues, and I learnt that her name is Amy Yuen. There are quite a number of young Asian musicians among the NYO playing the Proms, and I am really, really proud of them!

Incidentally also, the Piano Concerto they played was the first one written by Prokofiev when he was only 21 years old! What a blessing it is to have such a youthful piece performed by an extremely talented young piano soloist and backed by an equally-talented and even more youthful orchestra!

Although it was Kobrin's playing that captured my heart, the NYO went on to play an altogether much more complex piece, the "Leningrad" symphony no. 7 in C Major by Shostakovich. This is a truly magnificent work, a complicated, yet immensely moving piece that describes the onset of the Second World War and its bloody progress in the siege of Leningrad and the aftermath. And the explanations from the onscreen notes help greatly in decoding the different motifs being used in the different movements, as well as the historical significance of the piece. Shostakovich wrote it at the time of the Second World War itself, when Leningrad was actually under siege by the Nazis, and it served as a rallying call for Russians when it was first broadcasted for those trapped in the city, and apparently the Russian general had an assistant who had the music so that he could command his troops to stop firing during the quiet passages.

Here, the NYO really came into their own: the soloists from each section played assuredly when their turns came, which must have been quite daunting when the entire movement hinges on your single notes in the entire Royal Albert Hall! The rise and fall of emotions were coaxed beautifully through the various movements and really made the piece came alive! Mark Elder really did a fine job spending just eight days with these young ones. Oh, I'm really grateful I have heard and seen this performance. These young musicians are truly inspirational! Hats off to them!

(and thanks to the BBC, I can now relive the performance through their podcast (click on the link for Prom 29), though I have to say the Radio 3 quality is unfortunately far, far from the perfection I heard even just through the telly).

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At Tue Aug 07, 01:55:00 p.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

Hihihi~ Snowdrops!

How are you?

Wei wei, my surename is "Liang". ^^

At Wed Aug 08, 08:22:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Hey Liang (though I thought your surname would be spelt "Leung"?)

Thanks for stopping by my blog.


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