Review: American Monuments

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am

American Monuments
Hong Kong Philharmonic Cultural Centre Concert Hall 
Reviewed: June 6

There's not a lot of American music in the classical repertoire, but what this genre does best is rhythm: precise, syncopated and irresistible. Composers John Adams, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives, led with flair by American conductor Case Scaglione, provided splendid examples of the American beat in this thinly attended concert. Yang Tianwa (below with Scaglione) was dazzling in Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto in D. She played with heartfelt expression, perfect control and a rich, commanding sound.

Although the concerto was a fine showcase for lyrical playing, I was not completely won over. The harmony and orchestration were predictable, without jolts of imagination.

On the other hand, John Adams' piece The Chairman Dances was fresh. The opening rhythm was right on, a quick pulse on an intriguing chord whose harmony changed context as new voices were added. The instruments blended in flashing layers of colour, with zings of precise percussion.

The arrival of the chugging bass was a favourite moment, full of dark foreshadowing. The sudden transition to a silky, languid foxtrot conjured eerie pictures of Nixon and Mao at their historic meeting.

Charles Ives' Three Places in New England sometimes conveyed profound transcendence, and sometimes buried the ideas under dense layers like a messy ball of string. The orchestra did a good job of layering big marches with lurching rhythms.

Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was bold and witty from the first brass and percussion crescendo. Soloists on strings and horn played a beautiful version of There's a Place for Us. Then Bernstein overlapped the melody into a canon, like frosting on frosting.

This was American rhythm at its best, sophisticated but playful. Alexis Alrich