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From top, left: Shinik Hahm, Ignace Jang, Norman Krieger
Image: courtesy hawaii symphony orchestra

Roll Over, Beethoven

After two years of silence, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s long-anticipated new season provides many opportunities to celebrate

If music is the most abstract and formally structured of the arts, it can also be the most emotional. Teachers talk about the great composers as if they knew them, while students never cease to be amazed that such long-dead beings ever had lives–until they learn to listen, for few things speak so much to our humanity as live music does. And in its opening program, Honolulu’s newly relaunched symphony stirred every heart in the house with a remarkably fresh-sounding Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. To a protracted standing ovation, Maestro Naoto Otomo waved each section of the orchestra to its feet.

“It was such a refreshing experience after such a hiatus, it was a catharsis,” says Ignace “Iggy” Jang, concertmaster since 1997. And the Fifth was a serendipitous choice. It starts off “fairly tense, you feel the drama and a great pathos (and Beethoven is able to achieve that with just two notes, G and E flat, and a simple four-part rhythm),” Jang says. But by the finale, “the same phrase feels like a big deliverance. I think we the musicians felt that, but the most rewarding feeling was to feel that throughout the house, with the audience.”

A tough act to follow? As it happens, that’s how Brahms, the centerpiece of this week’s program, felt about Beethoven. Heralded as “a chosen one” by his mentor Robert Schumann, Brahms “felt the cloud of Beethoven above him, and you can feel the pressure at the beginning [of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1],” Jang says, “but as it goes on, then you can feel the composer feeling more liberated and finally you feel lightness.”

For the pianist, though, it’s heavy lifting. “It doesn’t get easier,” says returning guest soloist Norman Krieger, who made his Carnegie Hall debut with the concerto. “The older you get, playing a piece like that, every time it’s like climbing Mt. Everest.” The Brahms piece was modelled after Beethoven’s third piano concerto, Krieger adds. “The orchestral intro is like God hurling the planets; it’s pretty raw. The second movement is incredibly divine, perfect.”

But did Brahms have an affair with Clara Schumann as has been rumored? “I wouldn’t even try to understand that relationship,” Krieger says. But “definitely spiritually” there was something going on with both Schumanns.

Back in the day, classical music was new, provocative–sexy, even. And it still is. The rest of this week’s program includes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance with its lush violins and the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius, the romantic Finn.

The Sibelius work was suggested by Maestro Shinik Hahm, who is making his first Honolulu appearance. “It is a most soulful symphony,” Hahm says, “and unusually for Sibelius, this symphony is singable.” Think of the difference, he says, between Beethoven, whom Hahm calls “an instrumental composer,” and Mozart, whose music is “always opera-based, everything is singable.” The first time he heard the Sibelius work, as a young man, Han bonded with it, in part, because a few bars sounded like a pop favorite of his, “Stand By Your Man.” In the symphony’s final movement, this bit “culminat[es] his excitement, like a volcano.”

Even as the musicians rhapsodize about the current roster, they are quick to cross-reference and praise other works in a repertory that, for them, is as full of high points as a starry sky. Jang’s favorite is always the one the symphony is doing that week. The playing’s the thing, and you can hear and feel the joy in Blaisdell Concert Hall at every performance. “I’m so grateful that this symphony has come back, such a worthy group of musicians–they always played with their hearts,” says Krieger. So come prepared for soulful fireworks, but do remember to stay in your seat. “I’m not asking you to sing like karaoke,” Hahm says.

Hawaii Symphony Orchestra Blaisdell Concert Hall, Thu. March 22, 7pm & Fri. March 23, 8pm 593-9468.