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Monday, February 27, 2017

Concert Review: The Highlander Way

The sounds of Scotland come to Fukuoka.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Maestro Shao-Chia Liu led the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn and Bruch.
Photo from the Taiwan Philharmonic.
The vast distance between Scotland and Fukuoka, located on the southern island of Kyushu, Japan narrowed on Friday, February 17, when the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra offered an evening of works inspired by that faraway country. On the podium, Shao-Chia Lu, a guest conductor visiting from Taiwan where he is the music director of the Taiwan Philharmonic.



The KSO’s home is in the modern ACROS Fukuoka Concert Hall located just a block away from the banks of the bustling Naka River nightlife district. Hidden discreetly in a modern office tower, this warm, wood-paneled and very spacious room is the perfect compromise between old and new: it is “old” in its breadbox design and warm, woody acoustic, but new and modern in every other respect. In some ways, its careful design reminds one of Western halls in Boston and Vienna, venues that have stood at the forefront of concert hall design for well over a century.

The carefully curated concert framed Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” with works by Felix Mendelssohn: the overture “Fingal’s Cave” and his Symphony No. 3, immortalized as the “Scottish.” The fact that two German composers found inspiration in the northernmost part of the United Kingdom is a happy coincidence, and the works fit together in a harmonious way. “Fingal's Cave” is often on programs as a kind of Scots appetizer, and treated as an orchestral confection that is often played without serious respect for its craftsmanship. However the Kyushu players approached this music with earnest intent that this music (and composer) deserves.

From the first thematic statement, the orchestra unleashed rich, warm tone, a burnished sound that is the product of discipline and shared musical experience. The fast section was carefully distilled, pouring fourth in a flood of sound, pleasing the ear with adornments from clarinet, flute and the four horns. This quartet, with a rich and mellow sound, are one of the strengths of this ensemble.

The sonic tableau was expanded with trombones, tuba and extra percussion for the work by Max Bruch. More important was the addition of the evenings soloist, violinist Sunao Goko. The Fantasy is a four-movement expansion on the traditional violin concerto, straddling a line between classical form amd romantic excess.

Mr. Goko approached the solo part with a reedy and slightly dry tone that contrasted with the orchestral accompaniment. The wide Kyushu sound and boisterous, expanded brass never supplanted the soloist, and the addition of harpist Risako Hayakawa leant color and warmth to the final movement. It was followed by an unusual (and creative) encore: a guitar work by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, transcribed and repurposed for violin and bow.

In 1829, Mendelssohn visited Scotland for three weeks. His stops included the city of Edinburgh and its ruined Holyrood Chapel. He also did a walking tour of that countrys  wild, rocky landscapes that fired his imagination and led to “Fingal’s Cave." However, although the Third Symphony is romantic in its conception, the work is strict and classical in its form.

It launched with a formal opening movement, a slow introduction of great tension. It followed by the arrival of the genial allegro which burst like a firework.The strings and the quartet of horns supplied color and Chu provided shape, adding bright coloration from the strings and horns. The fast scherzo had elements  of Bach, with Mendelssohn”s love for counterpoint is readily apparent in the fugal passages that dominate its second half.

A stately Andante had great dignity, while the finale pulled out all the stops, with the brass rising to the challenge of a surging coda that built in an upward path to an inspiring, energizing finish. Following the warm reception, Mr. Chu returned to the podium and repeated the scherzo. In its second iteration the movement was less restrained and more romantic, and all the better for it.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.