Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 18, 1999

Worldly choirs
tackle ‘Ninth’

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin


The Honolulu Symphony: With Han Na Chang on cello and guest conductor Norio Ohga. Repeats 7:30 p.m. today, Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tickets $15-$50. Call 538-8863.

IMAGINE German composers' masterworks performed in Honolulu by an American orchestra under Chinese-American and Japanese conductors, with soloists from the United States, Israel, China and Korea, and choirs from Korea, Japan and Hawaii. Honolulu is indeed "The Gathering Place."

Honolulu Symphony's latest concert opened with Haydn's Concerto in C Major for Cello, showcasing cellist Han Na Chang, a prodigy barely 16, from Korea. Chang is a very talented, highly expressive young artist with a wide variety of timbres in her technical repertoire. She has a robust tone quality and is not afraid to let her instrument "growl" where appropriate.

The impression is reinforced by how closely she holds her cello's neck to her own and by how her occasionally audible breathing intertwines with what she is playing. Her interpretation of the Haydn -- the most dramatic, most expressive I have heard -- sounded somewhat like Haydn with angst.

Conductor Samuel Wong held the orchestra in excellent balance with Chang, allowing her superb pianissimo passages to be heard with absolute clarity. The enthralled audience seemed to hold its collective breath.

At an hour and a half long and with more than 300 performers on stage, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the second "half" dwarfed all that came before.

The music world owes guest conductor Norio Ohga its gratitude: as Chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation, Ohga has overseen many of the advances in audio systems during the past half century. Very few musical amateurs are able to lead an orchestra through Beethoven's Ninth: the work is not just long, but also technically complex, with large and diverse forces. Ohga possesses a controlled, reserved conducting style.

Unfortunately, yesterday's performance was marred by logistics. Rather than use the musically sensible break between third and fourth movements, the huge choir trooped on after the second movement, only to stand silently throughout the third. Worse, soloists were sandwiched between a full orchestra and a choir of 200-plus-singers, where they were barely visible and sometimes hardly audible. For final bows, the soloists were brought out front, where they should have been all along.

Baritone Dae-San No from Korea has an exceptionally large voice that carried well. Although he occasionally overpowered the other soloists, at least he was audible. Tenor Shieh-Yih Lim from China, Soprano Margaret Mack from the U.S., and Mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham from Israel seem to have strong voices of good quality, but it was hard to tell.

Almost two centuries of performances have resulted in a piece so well known, it could almost play itself. The work's impact and accumulated meaning shone through as it always does, a phenomenon that renders reviews somewhat irrelevant.

The choir combined three groups: the Sony Philharmonic Choir of Japan, the Oahu Choral Society, and the National Chorus of Korea. Although a combined choir this size lacks refinement, it provides a powerful sound that suited the symphony well, truly sounding like the text's "millions" and conveying the relentless momentum of Beethoven's juggernaut.

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