Edo de Waart: The final bow
As Edo de Waart prepares for his final performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Tjhung looks back at how the Dutchman reinvigorated the city’s premier ensemble
When Edo de Waart eventually lowers the baton at the Cultural Centre on Saturday April 21 – after the lyricism of star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has filled the auditorium, once the grandiose Ode to Joy proclamations by the Shanghai Opera House Chorus subside and following the frenzied Beethoven 9 climax – we’re sure there will be rapturous applause. One that will take on double significance, in fact. Of course, the euphoric climax of Beethoven’s epic ninth will lay claim to some of it but another significant part will be tinged with a bitter-sweetness; applause inflected with the emotions of farewell.
When De Waart steps down from the podium that evening, it will bring to an end his eight-year stewardship as chief conductor and artistic director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – a period that has been one of the most successful in the organisation’s 45-year history.
“The eight years he’s had with the orchestra are really important,” says Jonathan Douglas, long-time music critic and host on RTHK Radio 4. “He’s lifted the orchestra to another level. He certainly improved the orchestra to the point where it can at least claim to be one of the best – if not the best – in Asia.”
To put things into perspective, things were not so rosy for the HKPO when the Dutchman arrived in 2004. The orchestra had been without an artistic director for the 2003/2004 season and it was in dire need of someone to provide a long-term creative vision. “When he arrived, it was immediately palpably clear that the orchestra was delighted and relieved to have someone of the calibre [of Edo de Waart]. He galvanised the media and energised the orchestra, and really got them motivated,” says Douglas.
Of course, De Waart’s reputation preceded him – a noted conductor of opera, master of epic German romanticism and renowned orchestra builder, boasting previous music director posts at the San Francisco and Sydney Symphonies, et al. But, of all these qualities, the most sorely needed for the HKPO was his ability to put fundamental building blocks in place – and, indeed, the mandate he was given at the outset.
“In the early years, he often talked about building an orchestra in terms of building a house – that it was important to have secure foundations and then go from there,” says Douglas. “Over the years it was obvious he enjoyed seeing the fruits of his work in the progress the orchestra was making.”
As expected, building these foundations has been one of De Waart’s most noted achievements during his term, continuing up to the significant appointment of the new Russian-born concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich last September. And, while the general level of the orchestra has advanced, as Oliver Chou, senior music writer at the South China Morning Post, says, the woodwind section has been a particular beneficiary of De Waart’s custodianship. “Edo himself was an oboist, so naturally he had a particular ear for the woodwind section,” says Chou. “I think he was particularly demanding which showed in subsequent sessions where the woodwind section shone above all others.”
In terms of repertoire, De Waart has become synonymous with the big Germanic romantics – Mahler, Beethoven, Strauss and the like – who have both become the barometers by which Hongkongers have watched the orchestra grow and represented De Waart’s grand ambitions for the HKPO. In the early years, he dangled the prospect of a performance of the complete Wagner Ring Cycle in front of audiences and also aspired to present the entire Mahler Symphonic Cycle, neither of which, for various reasons, eventuated (the Ring never got off the ground; only Mahler 8 wasn’t performed). Nevertheless, the growth in the performances – particularly with Mahler – has been a constant source of pride for many local music-lovers.
“To go and hear him conduct the orchestra with Mahler 6, 7, 9 – these are unforgettably thrilling experiences, I’m sure for everyone who was there and for the members of the orchestra,” says Douglas.
Indeed, these sentiments are echoed by the members of the orchestra. “To learn Richard Strauss, Mahler or Wagner from Edo is to go on a journey through some of the finest European musical traditions,” says Richard Bamping, principal cellist of the HKPO, who has been with the orchestra throughout the De Waart era. “There is really not much he doesn’t know about those composers and when describing their works in rehearsal it has never been any less than fascinating.”
Sadly, none of the HKPO’s stirring performances under De Waart have been recorded for posterity, mainly due to the conductor’s vocal criticism of the Cultural Centre acoustics. But perhaps his most stinging criticism has been saved for the government. West Kowloon has been an obvious sticking point but, at a wider level, he found frustration in the government’s lack of understanding of what the arts community needs, perhaps best embodied in Henry Tang’s now-infamous quip ‘do we have to hire the Berlin Philharmonic?’ when discussing a world-class opening for the West Kowloon concert hall.
“He has been rather critical of the government, especially the LCSD,” says Chou. “I think he has said it more than once that the government should not just give money to the LCSD to bring in foreign orchestras. Instead, the money should go to groom the local orchestras.”
Later in his tenure, there was also talk that the maestro and the HKPO board were not seeing eye-to-eye, most particularly in the funding for De Waart’s beloved ‘opera in concert’ series. “Salome and Elektra had been done to great acclaim, but somehow did not translate to good sales, and the board was very reluctant in staging an opera in concert,” says Chou. In addition, there was an increasing public perception that his commitment had slightly waned, exacerbated by his lack of attendance at recent season launches and the opening concerts to his final season (which was actually due to illness).
“I just wish Edo maintained the same kind of push as he did at the beginning,” says Chou. “[At the start] he moved his family to Hong Kong, but three years later, they moved back to the States and he was truly a Flying Dutchman. It seems – this is just my personal observation – that when he moved his family back to Milwaukee, I think that’s where his attention was.”
Nevertheless, very much universally, Maestro de Waart’s eight years at the HKPO have been regarded as a success, overseeing a dramatic change in the orchestra’s standing, both within Hong Kong and internationally, and building a solid foundation from which incoming music director Jaap Van Zweden takes over this year. So how will Edo de Waart be remembered? Says Chou: “I think his legacy will be as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s [first] star conductor in its 30 years of history.”
4 defining moments of Edo de Waart's HKPO career
The Ring Cycle: The Vision 28 Jun 2004
From the outset, he showed ambition, not least in his reported plans to stage Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs. It didn’t work out, but it was a tremendous statement of intent.
West Kowloon passion 7 Feb 2005
The WKCD was a constant frustration, not least here, where he showed the courage to speak out about it. “I am amazed that one of the most important projects in Hong Kong history is omitting youth arts education and a concert hall. It’s the strangest decision, bordering on the ridiculous.”
Elektra: The Promise 17 Sep 2005
His second opera in concert. The orchestra and the cast were brilliant – but what made it memorable were the possibilities the performance represented.
Mahler 6: The Encore 19 Feb 2011
The first time around in 2007, it was good. Bu, last year, it was mind-blowing – a bitter-sweet moment, as de Waart’s close neared. Satoshi Kyo
Edo de Waart conducts the HKPO in Beethoven 9 at the Cultural Centre on Apr 20 and 21. Tickets: Sold Out.