Live Performance 2016

Anita Mui Everlasting Moments Charity Concert – December 23, 2016

Star Hall, Kowloon Bay International Trade and Exhibition Centre KITEC

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December 3o, 2003, Anita Mui 梅艷芳 died of cancer in Hong Kong. Every year her fans and friends hold a memorial event. This year, I decided it was time for me to attend one.

I was lucky enough to see her live but not one of her own concerts. I saw her as a special and surprise guest at Andy Lau’s 1999 concert and also in a Las Vegas Charity Show with Jacky Chan and multiple other performers all getting to have their few minutes on stage.

Anita and Jackie Chan

Anita and Jackie Chan

She’s really unforgettable as a performer. Her singing career as well as her acting was a real treat and there is a gaping hole in the Hong Kong entertainment world with her loss. No one can hold a candle to her talent and versatility.

Many local Hong Kong singers were at this memorial concert. Some, I think are from TVB. There were no top stars and not many were from her generation. Quite a few were younger and I doubt had ever worked with her. Still, everyone did a fine job of singing her songs and the audience seemed to enjoy it. I did even though I didn’t know the artists. I did discover some names:

Patrick Tang

Patrick Tam Yiu Man

Patrick Tang 鄧健泓 was one of the first performers and Patrick Tam Yiu Man 譚耀文 was one of the last ones. Both of these would have known Anita and were associated with the same artists’ management company, as was Man Pui Ling. I think the first performer was Hoi Chun Kit海俊傑. Others I’d like to know.

Here’s some difficult that I couldn’t recognize:
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Let me know if you recognize any of these.

Anita Mui (10 October 1963 – 30 December 2003)

The Love is never over.

 

 

**

Jacky Cheung Hok Yau A Classic Tour

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It’s been more than seven years since his last concert and that’s seven years too long. This was the 4th concert by Jacky that I have attended going back to 2000 in Vancouver, BC.

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In front of the HK Coliseum, 2007

Jacky was very obliging back then and may still be when it comes to giving autographs and having photos taken. This concert was everything the 2007 was not.

2007 Concert

2007 Concert

This year’s one wasn’t simply in the Hong Kong Coliseum but used it in the way it is meant to be used: in the round with awesome lighting. He sang every song you could think of you wanted to hear and although I can’t give you the names, I could hum them for you.

His use of lighting was exceptional and the show worked very well and I didn’t miss any of the over-the-top expensive props, gadgets and pyrotechnics that some performers use but maybe don’t need.

OTOH, my tickets were much better in 2007, but even sitting up high, I wish I had another ticket because I want to go back. In 2007, I went several times and didn’t really enjoy it all that much. Back then there was a large stage which seemed to diminish him as a performer and he felt dis20161213_213143tant from the audience. He ended up canceling the finals few shows due to health issues. This time, his shows run from December 4 – January 2 but on a three day on, one day off schedule which makes it much more likely he’ll get through them all.

He even had a string section:

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And huge screens all around with the lyrics so everyone who can read Chinese, could sing along. that meant every third or fourth word for me.20161213_221243

Every concert was sold out early and I was lucky to have gotten even one. On the day of the concerts, they put any newly available tickets on sale, including, or maybe, only, the wheelchair tickets not sold previously.

I never heard him in better voice. I tried a couple of times to get another ticket but it was impossible. Good luck getting one. You’ll be glad if you do.

Here’s a 13 minute excerpt from the 2016 concert in HK from someone with a better seat than I had. This is toward the end of the concert and contains a medley of several of his most well-loved songs. Most of the songs were in Cantonese and there was much singing along. You get a good idea of the atmosphere of a HK Coliseum concert.

***

Review – Yang Xuefei, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday, November 19, 2016, 8 PM.

Gershwin
An American in Paris

Rodrigo
The Regal Concierto de Aranjuez

Interval

Bizet
Carmen Suite

Gershwin
Porgy and Bess = A Symphonic Picture

The concert began with George Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” As an American living overseas, I could relate to the excitement of being in a new place as well as the nostalgia for home. But this year, and this month particularly, the view from here has changed into something not quite so nice. Music can provide a temporary respite from the potential horrors that many fear are now on the move.

“An American in Paris” was Gershwin’s first foray into orchestral music and, according to the programme notes by Dr Marc Rochester, Gershwin was not skilled in orchestration. He had called on Ferde Grofé to do the orchestration for “Rhapsody in Blue” and when he decided it was not acceptable for him to rely on someone else to do this important task, he sought out other composers for tutoring in orchestration and he was rebuffed. The notes state that he took along an orchestration textbook on the ship and during his trans-Atlantic voyage, taught himself. Well done!

The melodies and rhythms of this work are familiar to almost everyone, even if they never heard it before due to their universal appeal. We can picture the traffic and street scenes of Paris with the sometimes frenetic pace and sometimes leisurely stroll through the city.We here when his thoughts return to his home. This is a very clear and endearing musical portrait.

The orchestra was in fine form under the direction of British conductor Alexander Shelley. The international aspects of the evening’s performance was quite evident in the programme and the performers. It was a very worthy “An American in Paris” even if few or no American’s were participating other than in the audience.

Following the Gershwin, we were treated to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which the programme entitled, “The Regal Concierto de Aranjuez.” This is not how it is normally referred to. The music was attempting to present a portrait of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez which suggests why this name was bestowed, although not why it is not generally so. Even in other parts of this printed programme it was referred to without the “regal.”

Rodrigo was blind from the age of three on and was inspired more by scents and sounds than visual impressions. There are various stories that surround the making of this poignant depiction, including mourning for a still-born son but others have cast doubt on that version. See the article linked at the end.

No doubt, there are lovelier Spanish melodies than are found in “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Perhaps I might be forgiven for not remembering them while this piece in on my mind. No insignificant part of my love for it stems from my first hearing of the melody from the adagio when I was a teenager  listening to the first track on the masterpiece album, “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis with Gil Evans and orchestra.

In my younger days, I had the good fortune of attending many jazz concerts of the greatest names in jazz, including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Oscar Brown, Jr., Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely, Nancy Wilson and on and on. These gigs were usually at clubs. The age requirement was 21 but, I started going to the clubs when I was 16. Good thing nobody back then ever asked or checked IDs.

Because of this dereliction of duty, I was able to have a fabulous time primarily at Shelley’s Manne-Hole in Hollywood. But it wasn’t at Shelley’s that I saw Miles Davis. Seems while I was listening to someone else at Shelley’s, I think it was Bill Evans, Miles was playing elsewhere. But when the evening was over, there was often what was called an ‘after gig.’ The one that night was at the Adams West Theater and rumors were that Miles would be there.

Not being a driver or having a car, I managed to convince my companions, or vice versa, to go check it out. After we got there, somehow, maybe during a break of some sort, I got to talk with Miles. I was scared to approach the great one, but, never bashful, I walked up to him and started chatting. In the course of this conversation, which covered various topics, including the fact he had just brought on a new bass player, I asked him if he could play this tune from “Sketches of Spain,” and he told me that he needed Gil and the orchestra, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

He was very nice and it was only later that I learned Miles Davis had a reputation for being less than cordial to strangers. One of the things he told me, and I have never seen or heard this from anyone or anywhere else, was that when they released the “Kind of Blue” album they had got a couple of the names switched on the label. The tune “Flamenco Sketches” was listed as “All Blues” and vice versa.  He said Columbia wouldn’t change it since it was already out. And I was thinking that Oscar Brown. Jr, had already written lyrics to it. So that was that. But if you go back and listen to “Kind of Blue” with this information, it starts to make sense as there’s nothing remotely Spanish about the piece named “Flamenco Sketches.”

He said he would play “Flamenco Sketches” and he did. About the only other thing I remember is that Miles had a scratchy voice and that the new bass player was a relatively last minute addition and his name was Gary Peacock.

It’s been a long time since I have had the chance to see great jazz performances and the ones I have seen were in large auditoriums rather than nightclubs where jazz belongs. I miss regular, live jazz concerts with musicians of the highest caliber.

But I love all kinds of music and have been very grateful to the opportunities that Hong Kong has given me to attend world-class classical music performances.

I have never forgotten this hauntingly beautiful melody from the second movement of the concerto. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to hear it played as it was originally written for the guitar and to have seen it performed more than once.20161119_205145

This performance was by the Chinese guitarist, Yang Xuefei, who has graced the Hong Kong stage several times, most recently in a dual recital with tenor Ian Bostridge around this time last year.

Although I enjoyed the concert, I wasn’t moved as much as in previous performances. Xuefei is a wonderful player but, and I can only speculate, it may be that her strength is in recitals and not with an orchestra. Sometimes the guitar’s soft notes were lost which doesn’t help in delivering the kind of emotional impact that is contained in such a piece.

Her encore was a modern Brazilian piece.

I didn’t stay for the last part of the programme. I was still exhausted from my recent travels and I think it will be a long time before I listen to anything “Carmen” again. We’d already had a wonderful example of Gershwin and, although it’s not my habit, I felt little guilt in heading home at the halfway point.

The one and only, Miles Davis:

And here’s Julian Bream, the first artist I heard play this on guitar, many years ago:

I recommend this informative article by Graham Wade, which contains a brief video of the composer playing the piano:

http://classicalguitarmagazine.com/the-truth-about-rodrigos-concierto-de-aranjuez/

***

Review – Dmitri Masleev recital – Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall Wednesday, October 5, 2016, 8 PM

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Scarlatti
Sonata in b minor K27
Sonata in f minor K466
Sonata in d minor K1
Sonata in d minor K141

Beethoven
Sonata No. 26, E♭major, OP.81a, “Les Adieux”

Prokofiev
Sonata No. 2 in d minor, Op.14
Intermission
Rachmaninov
Elegy in e♭minor, Op. 3, No. 1
Prelude in c# minor, Op. 3, No. 2
Prelude in g minor, Op. 23, No. 5
Fragments
Polka de W.R.
Etude Tableau in Emajor, Op. 33, No. 6(7), “The Fair”
Etude Tableau in b minor, Op. 39, No.4
Etude Tableau in d major, Op. 39, No. 9

Liszt
Totentanze

Three encores – not announced
What is listed above was the scheduled programme and it was correct right up to the end of the second Rachmaninov etude when there was a very long pause before Masleev began the Liszt. I guess he forgot or else decided to skip the last etude. But he didn’t stand up so we didn’t know and no one applauded. Of course when the Liszt began, we realized that he had changed the programme.

A year ago, summer, the XV Tchaikovsky Competition was held in Russia. I was very fortunate to have heard that it would be streamed live online and I tuned in medici.tv for the semi-final and final rounds. Two difficulties became immediately apparent, one, all four competitions, piano, violin, cello and voice were held simultaneously. Oh no! And the second problem was the time. Moscow is something like 6 hours behind Hong Kong so a reasonable start time, say 6 PM there, is midnight here.

Trying to watch the various competitions became a search through the various competitions for who had the most sticking power. Young Dmitri Masleev was as sticky as it gets. The instant he began playing I was not going anywhere. I loved his style and thoughtful approach. He was very high in my list of top contenders. I was thrilled that he won and I wouldn’t have guessed I’d have the chance to see him in person in just over a year.

Last night he played in Hong Kong and the moment I saw his name, I was there. He has a lovely and adaptable style that allowed him to alter his playing for a close match with the composers’ period and location. The person next to me noted, who was quite obviously a pianist, said, after the Scarlaatti, “he doesn’t sound Russian.” That was meant as a compliment.
I had no opinion on the “Russianness” of Masleev’s sound. To me, it just sounded great. He had a very light touch on the Scarlatti which captured the liveliness and melodic structures of the Baroque style. The evening’s programme, beginning with the Scarlatti, allowed Masleev to showcase his charm and flexibility of range. Late pieces required something more serious. Several of the pieces required intensive staccato and percussive techniques.

Beethoven demands a very different touch and approach than Scarlatti. There is a greater level of emotional complexity in Beethoven. To the extent that a single sonata could be considered a fair representative sample, Masleev showed a real affinity for Beethoven. He was able to articulate the melodic lines clearly and expressively as well as exerting the power to explore the strong percussive rhythms throughout. I’d be very interested in hearing an all Beethoven programme from him.

The Russian part of the programme was another contrast in style, expression and emotions. I am always happy to hear Prokofiev and these pieces were relatively new to me and I spent a couple of days listening to the pieces of the programme performed by various artists on Youtube. I found them readily accessible and would be interested in hearing these pieces again.

The Rachmaninov was less familiar and on a quick listen I wasn’t able to form much of an impression and it would take me considerable time to become familiar with them. I didn’t dislike them but I didn’t connect with them. It seemed to some extent the value of these pieces was to offer a great opportunity to display one’s piano skills. And I was impressed.

The final Liszt piece certainly required great piano technique. I wouldn’t have ended my programme with it because it is a bit of an emotional downer. But it is easily followed by those in the audience, such as me, who doesn’t have much familiarity with it. Certainly, once you have heard it, it is memorable with the strong, pounding dissonant chords that seem, at times, frenzied in their brashness.

The first encore was something by Bach, perhaps from the Well Tempered Clavier or Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach.

Bach isn’t in Masleev’s comfort zone, so to speak. He played it very well, it was recognizably Bach but the impression was more clinical than I like. The other two pieces were lovely and very much more his cup of tea. I wish I knew what they were; one seemed very much like a Russian dance.

Prior to Mr Masleev’s performance, the sponsors gave us a special treat: a young local talent, named Tam Hei Tung. My guess is that she is about ten years old. She played the Sonata in B, K 570 by Mozart. It occurred to me while she was playing, that Mozart wrote a great deal of music when he was her age or younger, including many pieces for the piano. Although, it would seem this is from a later date, based on the K number, I couldn’t help noticing how playful it was and, although other, older, more mature pianists also can find that playfulness, there is something unique about the way a child plays as compared with how an adult would play at a child’s game. The adult might enjoy the playfulness but the weight of their years and knowledge means they don’t play the game or, in this case, the music in the same way their very age brings with it a different perspective and emphasis. Hearing an exceptionally talented child playing Mozart made feel meaningful and true. What a very different experience. And for me, who doesn’t much like Mozart, it was delightful.
Her second and last piece was “The Little White Donkey” by Jaques Ibert. This piece was new to me and was very rhythmical with playfulness as well.

I would enjoy hearing Tam play again, whether Mozart, Ibert or any other composer she would like. Well Done!

This performance was one of the Gala presentations of the 4th Hong Kong International Piano Competition and The Joy of Music Festival.

***

Review – September 24, 2016

America

Friday, September 23, 2016, 8:00 PM, Hong Kong City Hall Theatre – performed, written and directed by Peter Suart

This is a one-man show about two brothers who fought on opposite sides of the US Civil War.

I have seen several one-man shows over the years. The effort involved is always impressive. But there are times when the output is not commensurate with either the effort or the, undoubtedly, laudable goals that impelled the play in the first place.

Among the important aspects of a one-man play, for me, are a strong dramatic and narrative focus, engaging character/s and, when dealing with a historical event, with serious moral and political implications for our present time, a firm stance. Add to that: a compelling and charismatic performer, clear diction and commanding stature – when required.

We got pretty much none of these.

The narrative focus was unclear and confusing. We don’t know if  we are watching a personal drama that intersects an historical event in order to bring out new perspectives on that event or if we are supposed to be watching an encapsulation of a historical event through the lens of the personal. Neither of these is wrong but the audience does expect that the author’s perspective to be clear and consistent, otherwise there’s no framework within which to follow the words and action on stage. History, past and more recent, are shown in overlapping images and the script offers no guide to the audience as to how to interpret these superimposed scenes.

The play begins with silence and we see someone, we suspect is one of the brothers moving inside a small boat that hangs suspended over the stage.  The brothers are from Kentucky, and therefore both have a Southern accent. The first voice we hear is the brother who fought for the Confederate army and that, along with the southern US accent, sets up certain ideas and emotions in the audience. It is not a secret that audiences identify with initial characters and will generally accept the framework the author gives them, at least at first. In this play, the Confederate frame is the one put forward. But for me, as an Amrican, this is immediately jarring and repugnant. I do not find anything noble and honourable in the Confederate cause.

That cause will never be more palatable to people like me, who are aware of, and deeply care about the devastation the USA has wreaked upon the world. But, if rehabilitating the Southern cause is the author’s intentnion, it would been far better to have made that controversial move more subtle and gradual rather than the obvious, heavy-handed techniques used in this production. But given the author’s comments in the programme notes, it’s not at all clear that this was his actual intent.

A small matter – Southern US accents are not always clear and it is possible that the audience will miss some of what is being said. For the Chinese audience, there were Chinese surtitles so that was mitigated to some extent for them.

It’s not just the voices that we hear that are important. What struck me the most were the voices we didn’t hear. For almost the entire play, the only voices audible were white and male.

Why are the missing voices important? America was born in genocide against Native Americans but the only indication of this are unnamed images of iconic chiefs, some of whom postdate the Civil War. These images are shown being shot at by the white male character on stage. There is no context for this shooting gallery and there is no emotional or dramatic impact. All the audience sees are images of Native American males dressed in interesting costumes which quickly disappear making invisible the destruction of entire peoples. without blood, sorrow or pity.

Black people are confined to projected images of the civil rights era shown on the front scrim along with a few seconds of speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Undermining these black images and voice, inspiring as they are, there are the too many mug shots. These police shots make their subjects appear to be criminals and these are shown without a clear explanation and context of the civil rights struggle. The images, therefore are in keeping with the media’s common and regularly used stereotype of blacks as criminals. This idea that has been internalized throughout the USA and seems to permeate the police in multiple cities across the entire country.

There are some later images of blacks being lynched but they are without context or comment. Surely this is a place for Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit.” Although some music is used it isn’t used often and rarely adds to the drama or gives meaningful context.

Even more disconcerting is the scene behind the scrim on which the images of black people are shown. That scene depicts the dress and rope – a reminder of the rape by Union soldiers. There is no connection between the foreground images and the prop behind them. What are we to think of such a juxtaposition? This comes close to approximating the traditional white male sexual fear of black men.

But unlike the blacks who are given at least a single voice, women’s voices are entirely missing as are their images except for 1. a decontextualized and unnamed image of Sojourner Truth and 2. in among the civil rights heroes, is a mug shot of Rosa Parks. Few of the black men and none of the black women are given names, a further dehumanization of blacks as The Other.

Women are reduced to a single woman who is embodied and then used and misused in a male-centered and dominated story. Woman is merely a prop. There is no excuse for this blatant sexist perspective and it is utterly unacceptable in a supposedly enlightened production. That, coupled with the racism, well, I wouldn’t want to be in the audience if this were shown in the USA.

Given the background of US history, including the current standoff with Native Americans over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and the incipient martial law in the US State of North Carolina, for yet another police killing of a black man, to use iconic images of non-whites while simultaneously showing disturbing, pro-southern props, and frames, becomes, at best, moral equivalency where none exists and blatant racism at worse.

In a running side story, we have the Union soldier, killing whales, in an apparently misguided attempt to follow in the footsteps of Ismael in Moby Dick. The last thing that anyone should take from that wonder of a book, my favorite of all time, is that killing whales is admirable.

This play, unlike the book, turns a deaf ear on the destruction of the natural world. Melville was very aware of the dangers to the whale. His book evinces a great love of these animals.

That’s not to say we didn’t learn something new from the play. We learned that there were Chinese in the USA who fought in the Civil War for the union. We are shown one man’s photo and told what regiment he fought for and what happened to him after. That was great.

Unfortunately, the most memorable images are either anti-Union or Confederate ones: a top hat, that is immediately associated with Abe Lincoln but instead of dignity and gravitas is mocked by putting a ‘feather in his hat’ which many Americans will then associate with the song “Yankee Doodle” and add the lyrics to the next line “and called it macaroni.”

Pro-Confederate images and memes predominate: the southern accent, the large, burning cross, the klansmen, the rape by Union soldiers, the hanged dress, the simulated rape by the Union soldiers. As an aside, I might add, that the rape and how it occurred comes from an authorial perspective, and not from any actual knowledge that the character relating it, or anyone, could have known as all the witnesses to what happened were dead without, apparently, having told anyone what happened.

The idea of having two two brothers on opposite sides is almost a cliche but ifdone thoughtfully, avoiding the pitfalls, it could have provided a vehicle for exploring important moral issues in depth, making clear the connections between US genocide, slavery, oppression of women, criminalization of entire races, and the Black Lives Matters movement that has arisen in today’s world. It could also have connected that history to the current wars of aggression in the Middle East and the role of the US government in the massive increase in refugees and the rise of terrorism. The only pity in this play is that this didn’t happen.

The author says, in the programme notes, that he “hopes this project serves the cause of peace,.” Instead, this English-Australian writer, who grew up in Hong Kong, has, by his choice of framework, possibly due to a lack of awareness of the nuances and cultural significance of some of what was and was not depicted on stage, and by his stifling of the voices of the oppressed Native Americans, blacks, women, Peter Suart has, quite possibly unintentionally, given us a apology for white oppression.

***

Review – March 9, 2016

One (of two) to Remember
1. Verdi’s Requiem
Thursday, March 3, 2016, 8:00 PM, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall- Teatro Regio Torino, Gianandrea Noseda conducting
Soloists:
Soprano: Erica Grimaldi
Mezzo-soprano: Daniella Barcellona
Tenor: Georgio Berrugi
Bass:    Michele Pertussi
Chorus Master: Claudio Fenoglio

2. Saturday, March 5, 7:00 PM, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
and
St. Matthew Passion – Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, St. Thomas choir, conductor Gotthold Schwartz (and acting Choir Master)
Soloists:
Soprano: Sybella Rubens20160305_221458
Alto: Marie-Claude Chappuis
Tenor (Evangelist): Benjamin Bruns
Tenor: Martin Petzold
Bass (Jesus): Klaus Häger
Bass:    Florian Boesch
Organ: Ulrich Böhm

The Verdi Requiem is possibly my favorite Verdi work. Unfortunately, this performance, with it’s overly brisk pacing, insensitive, over-the-top dynamics and so-so soloists was more spectacle than spiritual and definitely is one I’m looking to forget.

Two days later and what a remarkable difference! This time the performance of a great work, St. Matthew Passion by Bach, was everything the Verdi was not. Bach is perhaps the greatest composer ever and deserves to be played with great intelligence and sensitivity and passion. There’s so much to like in this work and some of it is to love, almost irrespective of the performance, but when it all comes together in a stunning performance, such as we had on Saturday night, then every little bit of it is to love, unconditionally. Even the uneven portions, and there were some, were forgivable and could not take away from the overall beauty and moving effect of this work.

Certainly, Benjamin Bruns was the best Evangelist – ever! I have heard numerous recordings, TV presentations and some live performances but none compares to this Evangelist. For starters, Bruns has a very beautiful voice with impeccable vocal technique. His delivery is forthright and he managed to position himself perfectly between that of of being involved in the passion and yet remaining detached enough to be a responsible narrator. Although some singers may be more expressive, I do not believe there are many who could present a finer Evangelist than this. I can only hope to to hear this good again and I’d consider myself lucky to see Bruns in this role another time.

But let me be clear, all the vocalist had great voices, beautiful tone and each showed excellent singing skills. Each role was sung perfectly.

Jesus was sung by Klaus Häger who has a higher tessitura and a lighter timbre than many I have heard in this role and it was absolutely the right voice for Jesus’s character. In many other performances, the dark tones and heavy bass is shocking and so overpowering that it becomes impossible to believe that this man (Jesus) could be made captive by anyone.

Without question, the alto has the best music and Chappuis projected the intense emotions that this role demands without ever losing any of the beauty of tone and line. She made my favorite aria, #52, simply sublime. Unfortunately, in an earlier aria, Embarme dich, #39, she was undercut by the violinist who accompanied her whose shenanigans bordered on the burlesque. Luckily, he could not completely detract from this beautiful piece. His overly active body bends and theatrical flourishes would have fit better in the Turin’s Verdi and reminded me way too much of the unforgettable performance by René Aberjonois as Tartuffe with ACT in San Francisco, a million years ago, which is definitely not the proper demeanor for the evening’s performance. When not standing to accompany this aria, he was also showboating in some kind of follie a deux with the violinist sitting next to him. They were in a world of their own looking like school boys egging each other on. Such behaviour is a visual distraction from the performance and comes across as utterly disrespectful. I hope the music director has a little chat with the concertmaster and puts an end to this, ASAP. It’s not a question of musical ability that ought to be of concern here, it’s whether the performers further the overall work being played.

In contrast to this guy, a different violinist accompanied the bass in a subsequent aria, #42. This violinist was dignified as was befitting this work. Her demeanor was somber yet expressive without being histrionic. She seemed to have entered into the spirit of the music and grasped the concept of what ‘accompaniment’ means. Thank you.

The soprano, Sibylla Rubens, has a lovely voice with clear, ringing tones. She has a very light and graceful touch but occasionally seemed to need a boast in the volume as it failed to carry over the orchestra. I’d prefer a more substantial voice and her presentation failed to move me in the way the alto’s did. I would, however cross the street to hear her again.

The tenor, Martin Petzold, and the bass, Florian Boesch, were excellent and there is nothing negative to say about either of them. They brought the perfect combination of gravitas and vocal grace to join together with the rest of the soloists and make this one of the finest performances of this work that I could ever imagine. I would hope that being part of such a high quality production would be sufficient reward to overcome any personal disappointments at not being the stand-outs but with such a superb Evangelist and alto, that was never going to happen.

And that brings us to the orchestra and choir. I’m biased, I love this orchestra and think their HK Arts Festival performances a few years back were among the finest I have heard. They maintained their high level of excellence and the St. Thomas Choir, from Bach’s own church for which this piece was written and where it was first performed, could there a better choice for this work? There is something wonderful about a boy’s choir that is lost when a full and mixed choir of adults sings these works. I love those too but this kind of choir is special. I’ve been in Leipzig in St. Thomas church and could only imagine being there for this performance. Maybe one day I’ll have that chance to hear this performed there. The thoughtful sensitivity of the entire presentation was evident throughout. If there is one thing that might make this even more impressive, it would be to have all the soloists sing from memory. Looking down at the score alters the voice and takes a modicum away from the intensity of feeling. Certainly, not a deal breaker. All in all, it’s rare and wonderful to feel this good about a performance.

P. S. A big thanks for not having a countertenor sing the alto role. For some reason, this type of singer has always sounded off pitch to me and utterly awful and I can tell instantly without seeing any programme notes or names. I love falsetto so I don’t understand this issue. Others must not have this reaction but it is my curse.

Here’s the aria that hooked me the first time I heard it sung here by the alto from my first recording, Julia Hamari. Given the hair, this concert was near the time of that recording. I don’t believe I have heard a better one since. (Please, overlook the camera operator’s infatuation with extreme close-ups and you can hear how good this aria can sound.)

Aria 65, sung by Walter Berry from the same concert as Hamari, Karl Richter conducting:

Here’s Thomas Quasthoff:

And finally, the choir:
Chorale #62

Rudolf & Erhard Mauersberger [direction]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig – Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Thomanerchor Leipzig – St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig
Dresdner Kreuzchor – boys’ choir of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden

Playlist Tracks
[01-29] St Matthew Passion BWV 244 Part 1
[30-68] St Matthew Passion BWV 244 Part 2

Recording: Dresden, Lukaskirche 1,2/1970

***

Review – March 2, 2016

Two to Remember

1. A piece by Auriélien Bory for Stéphanie Fuster

Production: Compagnie 111 – Toulouse

Guitarist: José Sanchez

Singer: Alberto Garica

The HK Arts Festival has now started and my first of the 2016 season was the performance entitled What’s Become of You?, a programme based on the idea of flamenco as experienced through the stages of a dancer and her art, as displayed on the stage, from within and without.

20160228_160415Art for me is what connects us to what really matters in life, and makes us confront who and what we really are, and that causes us to face one another in that sacred space where pride and humility are united: pride in achievement, pride in accepting the mantel handed to us by  our ancestors, and humility in knowing that this is a burden that must be carried in order to be fully human but can only be accomplished when we act in a unified spirit of compassion.

The HK Arts Festival has brought the world’s greatest artists, both individual performers and ensembles. These artists represent the finest talent from around the globe. But even in the highest mountain range, there is sometimes an Everest. To have seen two Everests on the same day, may never happen again.

This afternoon started with a complete unknown.. The brochure said the underlying theme was flamenco and I have a passion for that form. I looked at a video online of another of the director’s works and I was very intrigued so, unlike most of what I purchased this year, I was gambling on something I was unfamiliar with. I had no idea of who either the choreographer or the dancer were. Sometimes a gamble pays off big-time.

The only negative thought I had during the whole performance was that it was the last day and I couldn’t see it again. Had I gone on Friday I would have been back on Saturday and Sunday. This is one of the most innovative, provocative, impressive, stimulating, intelligent and symbolic performance I have ever seen.

It started out with the dancer, Fuster, in a red dress who walked to the center of the stage and began to articulate the rhythms. “Dahm, tika tika dahm, Dah, dah, Tika tika dahm.” This continued for several minutes and is of course directly tied to classical Indian music. This is a traditional way in which dancers and musicians articulate the rhythms in Indian musical and dance performances and is integral to it. As we all are now aware, the gypsies, who are the founders of flamenco style, originated in Punjab, athe major state in India. I appreciate the highlighting of this connection between Flamenco and Indian rhythms, which may be obvious with some thought, but is not frequently presented and had not been in any of the numerous flamenco performances I had seen before. And indeed, searching out Indian dance brought me to the realization that such connections have been made but are not widely known. We sometimes fail to make connections that are staring us in the face or ears, in this case.

From 2001 a Flamenco and Indian dance pairing.

and there’s this dance as well as instrumental musicians exploring the intertwining of the two on Youtube:

From there, the performance becomes a treatise on the art of artifice, or perhaps it’s the other way round? for we saw the role of costume in a whole new way, make that ways. The red dress is not quite a dress but something detachable, something with a life of its own and something with parallels, connections, resemblances and reflections of other things, ideas, cultural attributes and societal conventions. Questions arise: To what extent does the costume create the artist/art? How much of costume is deception, how much is description, how much is revealed, how much is hidden or obscured? Does the costume liberate or obliterate the artist? Is there separation between them or is there unity? Does the dancer give life to the costume or does the costume give life to the dancer?

The costume not only questioned the role of the artist on the stage but by a simple twist over the head, the dress becomes a tall, red mitre, which hints at the role of the church in the society in which flamenco developed as an outside and alien culture. From there one can see the tall hanging red spires above the dancer’s head as a carefully balanced edifice that has no independent existence if not supported by the people who are oppressed by its dominance. And finally, as the dancer is a woman under all this oppressive redness, we can see the weight that women are forced to operate within. What a tour de force, for the opening of this remarkable work.

The second portion takes place inside a relatively constricted space that has a glass panel that faces the audience allowing us to see what goes on inside. We are introduced to the guitarist who sits on an office chair and rolls around the small space as he plays. He soon leaves and is followed by the singer who also departs when the dancer arrives. They accompany her practice session. We are given visuals that include her, her shadow and reflection and reflection of her shadow to make a series of complex patterns that are mesmerizing in the interplay of light and dark: a non-stop Rorschach test.

Then it gets really interesting as the glass, a few inches from the bottom, fogs up. This causes the legs to become a blur as we watch the dancer. She moves faster and faster and the level of the fog rises up the glass, higher and higher. Her head and shoulders are still but there is a whirlwind going on down below. The bottom few inches are completely clear and we can see her feet as they move. A parallel to the focus of the feet in flamenco where some of the leg movements could well be covered by a costume. At the end of this segment, the dancer presses against the glass and when she leaves the now darkened room, her body’s impressions  remain, faint but there while the singer and guitarist continue. Making the point that regardless of whether the dancer is present, she/he is never completely absent from any flamenco performance, thereby underscoring the crucial role of dance and the dancer to this genre. Wow, wow!

The final portion is introduced by some light-hearted comic touches from the musicians. The singer does a pratfall in his rolling chair into a sort of shallow pit which he gets out of and we see the dancer move into this pan in which water slowly begins to move towards the audience in uneven patterns. The rest of the performance consists of the dancer dancing in this small pool of water that has the added benefit of being very resonant and when she stamps her foot just so, it reverberates with an intense and deep sounds. By the end, the guitarist and singer are atop the two containers, one being the practice room, and the dancer is below them with her very much in touch with the earth and the water.

This is very much up there with the greatest performances of dance I have seen. Two of which were Pina Bausch’s Vollmund and Legend Lin Dance Theatre’s Song of Pensive Beholding where I finally got what the word ‘visionary’ actually means.

2.  Nrityagram, an evening of Odissi Dancing presented by India by the Bay at the Asia Society

  Later the same day, I went to experiencing dance of a very particular style of classical Indian dance. But not just any classical Indian dancing, Odissi dancing. This style comes from the Eastern Indian state of Orissa. (The ‘r’ sound and the ‘d’ seem to be used interchangably. I had been fortunate enough to see an extraordinary Odissi dancer many years ago in Portland, thanks to the Kalakendra Society. Her name was Sanjukta Panigrahi and the three times I saw her were and are among my most cherished performance memories.

Odissi dancing can, at the highest level, incorporate consumate grace and musicality, all wrapped in intense expressivity and emotions with episodes of the most extraordinary athleticism. This is a 2000 year old dance tradition that originated from the sculptural representations in the many temples of Orissa.

There is a continuum of Hindu-based, temple dances that includes other parts of India and through much of South East Asia and can be seen in such places as Thailand and Cambodia today. Odissi makes claim to being the oldest and therefore the original dance form that spread to all these other places with their varying styles that developed throughout the ages. These other forms may have continued, perhaps without a break, while Odissi dancing disappeared for some centuries and was only revived approximately 75 years ago. There is much to uncover and rediscover in order to bring this fantastic dance form back to what it must have once been.

We were fortunate enough to have been treated to an exceptional dance performance by Nrityagram one of the foremost dancer companies and their great dancer, Bijayini Satpathy, and choreographer, Surupa Sen. There simply is nothing in this world that’s like a great Odissi dancer. The focus is on three elements of the body, where the major bends are: the head/neck, the torso/trunk and the knees/feet. Each are used to convey the dance, regardless of whether the dance is narrative, as we saw this evening, or more abstract presentations of pure dance movements. Regardless, the eyes are an important factor in the overall impression/expression.

In the narratives, that often retell famous Indian and Hindu epics, the solo dancer incorporates each of the characters and there is no doubt when we are seeing a different character as the dancer’s entire body changes to reflect the different aspects of each. We saw an excerpt from the Ramayana, and saw that she can go instantly from male to female, from the demon disguised as a deer to the kind-hearted Sita to the wicked demon Ravenna to the giant bird who tried to rescue her. One of the things that Odissi dancers have done in each of the performances I have seen, is to introduce these elements before the dance so the audience is more able to follow the narrative line. This is very helpful and would be something all dances with a narrative component ought to consider. Many, especially Western dances, do not have such a direct relationship between the dancers’ movements and the story elements. There may be male Odissi dancers but I haven’t seen one in a major role. We also were treated to the opening invocation to Lord Jagannatha, and an excerpt from the Geeta Govind which tells of the love of Khrishna and Radha.

20160228_202344There are numerous videos that show Odissi dancing but not the exact examples that would closely represent what I have seen. Those of Sanjukta Panagrahi are more like practice session and have zero connection to what she did in those performances. This one gives you two connections to flamenco, in that the head and shoulders are still while the feet are busy indeed. It also has the oral enunciation of the rhythms as was done in the earlier performance, reviewed above. The performer is not named but the choreographer is Raksha Singh David who could possibly be the dancer as well. Unfortunately, the camera operators/directors seem to be unaware or uncaring that this is whole body dance and an almost continuous focus on the upper torso and head does not convey what Odissi is all about. This one is pretty good about that. The dancer is Anandini Dasi:

The following features the group I saw. Their fluidity, intricate workmanship, garce and skill are incomparable. The dancer on the right-hand side, who is playing the male, Shiva, when they make their first stop, was the dancer of the evening. Ballerinas would kill to be as rock solid on one foot as she is. The other dancer  in the video is the choreographer of our performance. Just how long can you stand on one foot with the other raised while still looking beautiful and making it look so easy?

An interesting mini-doc/news lifestyle report from when they visited South Africa in November 2015, in which they discuss some of their underlying philosophy .

In the Q & A that followed our performance, we learned that Sen will be an artist in residence of the Baryishnikov Arts Center in NYC from February 29 to March 25 to do whatever she wants. Brava! Resisted till the end: Sen-sational!

***

Review- January 31, 2016

20160121_175158Die Walküre, opera by Richard Wagner, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Thursday and Saturday, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall – 6 PM and 3 PM, respectively.

Conducted by Jaap Van Zweden, Music Director

Cast in order of appearance:
Siegmund:   Stuart Skelton
Sieglinde:    Heidi Melton
Hunting:      Falk Struckmann
Wotan:            Matthias Goerne
Brünnhilde: Petra Lang
Erika:            Michelle de Young
The eight Walküries: Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine Mc Krill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau, Laura Nykänen.

Die Walküre is the second part of the great Wagnerian Ring Cycle that the HK Phil began in January, 2015, with Das Rheingold but Die Walküre includes only two characters from part 1. Die Walküre is the one, stand-alone opera of the four in the series and for many, it is not simply their favourite Ring opera, it is their favourite opera. Me too. One of the reasons people love opera so much it that it gives back a tremendous emotional rewards for the amount of time and understanding you put into it. The more time, the more understanding, the bigger the reward.

I love this opera for so very many reasons and when it all comes together, it is sublime. Not only do you get the emotional roller coaster of Wagner’s overwhelming music, you also get his very thoughtful analysis on human behaviour and relations, as well as the larger forces at work in society. And let’s don’t kid ourselves, many of the tribulations and machinations he depicts remain as prevalent in our world now as they were then, perhaps more so.

This performance, and whether it’s because it’s how many times I’ve seen it, or because of the insightful conducting and artistry of the performers, oincluding Jonathan Dean’s thoughtful translation, but this time I saw the characters much more clearly and how their context affects how they are perceived. My comments are focused on each of the characters with some of the insights that came to me during these two concerts, several of which were unexpected and not intended by the composer – always a bonus.

20160116_201833In order of vocal appearance:
Siegmund. This character is an outcast who comes across as impetuous, daring and honor-bound to do the right thing, as he understands it. He expresses the key to his character in Act 1, Scene 2: “Whatever I thought right seemed bad to others; whatever seemed wrong to me, others approved of.” This is a key declaration of just who Siegmund is and perhaps a description of Wagner’s feelings about himself that didn’t conform to the world’s expectations. It has a parallel with Wotan’s statements as we shall see later. We shall also see that Siegmund’s is the more believable and more honest.

If you are lucky, new ideas come up. I had never before looked at Siegmund as a kind of Huckleberry Finn but those quoted words encapsulate of one of the major themes in Twain’s masterpiece. I do not know whether Twain was inspired by Wagner but he was an educated and cultured man. Perhaps Twain had attended the opera and it became a subconscious template. Something for someone else’s literary research.

As this was an opera in concert, certain elements of stagecraft were missing. In some cases, some were more missing than others. In the best of concert versions, there is nothing between the singer, the music and the audience. There are no encumbrances, no stage directions, props, costumes or bizarre lightings and sets. This, in theory, allows those singers with the most experience, empathy and confidence to project the emotions and ideas with great and direct intensity. Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, is a singer with a beautiful voice, who is capable of projecting the feeling in the music with his splendid voice. But not with his body or facial expressions.  The only ardor we could see from Skelton, as opposed to hear, was when he sang about his sword and his battles. A Siegmund who doesn’t turn toward Sieglinde even once during the entire Act 1 and the relative portions of Act 2, is not simply unbelievable, it distracts the audience from the opera itself, the very reason they are here, by actions that are puzzling and frustrating and this cannot be overcome by his singing. An imperfect singer with great stage presence and empathic acting will beat a great singer who can only impersonate a wooden statue, every time. The good news is that Skelton would make the perfect Siegfried.

To his credit, by Saturday, Siegmund did manage one or two turns toward Sieglinde and perhaps even an occasional eye contact with her. Not enough and without any expression that matched the turbulence and turmoil and sensuousness of the music but it at least made it seem that he was aware that there was another character with whom he was supposed to be interacting. That might have been enough for Saturday’s audience to not feel as uncomfortable as some of us on Thursday. His body language may be acceptable for oratorio singing but an opera in concert is still an opera and there is no excuse for this not to get fixed and soon. You’d think it would be good enough to just be able to sing like that – but it isn’t.

20160116_201820 (1)Sieglinde. The contrast between the Siegmund and his ‘twin’ sister, Sieglinde could not have been greater. In terms of being in the role. Heidi Melton’s bady and face displayed every aspect of the emotions that were pouring out of the music and she did so without losing any of that expressive intensity in her lovely voice. We could feel Sieglinde’s anguish, shame, awakening, love and wonder and we didn’t want to close our eyes in order to prevent limited acting abilities from undermining the operatic experience as we did with Siegmund. She was Sieglinde, he was not Siegmund. She was incapable of not showing what Sieglinde was feeling and experiencing; a mark of a true artist and her excellence was highlighted by his lack of true commitment to the role.

When it became clear that her stage companion wasn’t going to turn towards her or make eye contact with her, she moderated her own stance to turn away from him and made it seem as though she was gazing in the distance, remembering or looking into a dream of future happiness. Because she didn’t turn so often to look at him, it mitigated his failing to look at her, taking the burden for this acting failure from him and putting it partly on her. But that led to times when we had almost a dance of him looking toward her but she has already turned away. Then she looks at him and he’s turned back toward the audience and conductor. One might have expected that, at least the times when the words or the equivalence of “your eyes” and “looking at you,” ought to have triggered a turning towards the other. And yet, not.

Melton’s voice is strong, flexible, and sensitive with a range of expressiveness that made Sieglinde a vivid persona to the audience. Her tone is bright and clear and she displayed outstanding vocal command. Her performance was so good that the audience, or at least I, didn’t for one instance, think that her distress was caused by the unfortunate and inexplicable lack of communion on the part of the singer sharing the stage with her. That was a sign of true artistic commitment. She was the complete package; a consummate professional. Brava!

20160116_201802Brünnhilde: Another instance of what a difference two days can make. Unlike Skelton’s Siegmund, Lang’s Brünnhilde did not need to be tweaked as far as acting went. She had her interpretation and kept with it in both performances. But something happened to brighten and polish up her voice, increasing the volume as well, between the first and last performance. Hers is a very lyrical Brünnhilde and fit well in this concert performance. She didn’t blast out the rafters, and given the limited venue locations for such productions in Hong Kong (limited due to the huge demands for these spaces) we couldn’t have afforded the loss.
Her interpretation was one I had not seen before, or I don’t recall that I have. With her curls and relatively small stature, it was a bit like seeing Shirley Temple cast as Brünnhilde. Not quite what I was expecting but, hey – Shirley was great. And as long as there was no “Good Ship Lollipop,” I was okay with it.

Lang’s Brünnhilde was a spunky lass who is ever optimistic and somewhat immature. All of which worked, even if other interpretations I have seen are also correct and perhaps more to my personal taste. One of the interesting aspects of Brünnhilde that came across more than ever, was how attuned Brünnhilde is to the emotional side even though it’s not something that she in her own life is especially familiar with nor has it motivated her up to Act 2 of the opera. This is where we understand that she feels what Wotan feels, the one who sees the hidden parts that he is unaware of, or which he has suppressed. She has felt it but up to this point hasn’t understood what it means and hasn’t been called to act on it.

The music and situation now compels her to take action and this changes everything: for the audience, for her, for Wotan, for the doomed lovers, for Hunding and the rest of the Ring and for the fate of the world as Wagner projects it. By playing the naif, who has to shed her innocence or at least her obliviousness, we too are forced to face the overpowering truth that resides in love and must take sides. We must join with her on the side of love. To make any other choice leads to beyond total destruction to annihilation. But Wotan is too self-absorbed to notice or understand.

20160116_201754Which leads us to Wotan. This character is the most conflicted, the most arrogant and the most manipulative of all characters I have ever seen in an opera and certainly rivals Shakespearean characters in his monumental self-delusion. This time, I was able to see that Wotan expresses hubris at almost every word. Even when he seems to be humbling himself, he just can’t do it. There are several examples that are simply breathtaking in their clarity. And perhaps it does take numerous revisits in order to see this. If Wotan is expressing Wagner’s ideals, then I would suggest that Wagner is doing so with the utmost irony, or perhaps it is that Wagner expresses himself in whichever character he wants and whenever. I would also suggest that Wagner was capable of holding conflicting views and willing to put them all forward.

Some interesting statements by Wotan that show how compromised he really is and how far from what a top god should be:
In Act 2, Scene 2:
“My misery is everlasting.
I am the saddest of all men.“
This is spoken to Brünnhilde when he is forced? to order her to kill Siegmund, his son. But he says it as a description of his present situation and of what has led up to this moment. He has not a clue that it is only going to get worse from here on out.

Self delusion:
“What I tell no one verbally,
remains unspoken
for ever:
I only talk to myself
when I talk to you.”
He says to Brünnhilde in order to pretend that he is not talking to her and therefore is not responsible for what she later might do. Sure.

Foreshadowing/self-delusion combined:
“I won the world for myself.
With unwitting dishonesty
I acted disloyally.”
Note the past simple tense. All this bad behaviour is behind him, right?

Foreshadowing/self-delusion, parallels and everything else in this:
“Nibelung
Alberich broke night’s bonds:
he cursed love
and through his curse won
the glittering Rhinegold,”
As if by killing Siegmund, his son, because he wasn’t the ‘free’ hero who could win the gold for him, he wasn’t cursing love, doing exactly the same thing as Alberich and for the same reason.

More parallels:
“With the magic of love
I overpowered the woman,
brought down her pride in wisdom
and now she talked to me.
I learned her secrets,
but she exacted a fee from me:
the world’s wisest woman
bore me you, Brünnhilde.
With eight sisters”

Compare that with his later description of Alberich:
“Of the Nibelung
I recently heard a rumour
that a woman was overpowered by the dwarf
and seduced for money.
The fruits of his hatred
a woman is carrying:
his envy at full strength
is stirring in her womb.”

So, let see, Wotan’s basically raped Erda, but that’s okay because it was for his ‘greater’ purpose. Look how unrepentant he is. He simply can’t see that what he did is abominable, no different and no better than the one he is denouncing. Is this exceptionalism? Is this a parallel with the way men used the Earth for personal gain; still even today? Is Wotan inadvertently showing how closely he parallels Alberich without even recognizing that fact? Both?

“So you did
what I wanted so much to do,
though two-faced necessity compelled me
to refrain from it.
So easily did you imagine
love’s bliss was attained
when burning pain
had stabbed me to the heart,”

Here is intense envy at Brünnhilde’s ability to act as he could/would not. Our awareness of Wotan’s pettiness just gets stronger and stronger.

In the translation for this performance, Wotan tells us that he has had to do all this bad stuff because he’s trying to save the world when in fact he’s merely conflated himself with the world as he continues his attempt to save his own self and his plans to regain the ring. Erda gave Wotan a warning that the Ring would bring the end of the gods. Wotan reigns there supreme, in theory. Wagner has made clear that the world of the gods is not the same as the world, aka Earth.

One other translation that was different that I noticed:
“Did I not have to avenge treason?
Were you too insignificant to make me angry? “

These lines weren’t there in this presentation. I can’t recall what was substituted but I think these lines convey an important aspect of Wotan’s character and self-absorption. As we can see, only Brünnhilde’s ‘significance’  to Wotan, makes any of it matter. She belongs to him so she can’t have any independent existence. Just, how different is Wotan’s overall attitude from that of Hunding’s toward Sieglinde? Plenty to think about.

As for Matthias Goerne’s Wotan, there’s a lot to like. He has a very listenable voice and an excellent pallet of vocal colors within a somewhat limited range of dynamics. Increased breath capacity is a challenge and can be addressed up to a point. Whether Gorene can increase his volume to Wotanian levels is still to be seen. I prefer him in the lieder repertoire where his skill is suited to the size and scale of the music and the stature required. He shows he is accustomed to singing about others who are not present and about ideas more than to another character who is beside him on the stage. There was simply no recognition that he was addressing a beloved daughter when singing this most poignant of farewells. If, to look at her, he needs the music stand to be angled towards Brünnhilde, then that ought to have happened. To the extent this is a furtherance of Wotan’s narcissism, then I’d suggest this is the one place in the opera where he needs to leave it behind.

Someone’s got to also make it clear that no matter how beautiful and stirring the music is, the singers, in character, simply cannot be obviously hearing it. It is a total distraction to have our Wotan moving his head to the rhythm and melodic line of the orchestra. Goerne hears it, as do all the singers, but none of the others were bobbing their heads. This is a problem and has to go.

20160116_201743Fricka was played with impeccable imperiousness by Michelle de Young, who in stature could easily pass for the twin of Skelton’s Sigmund. One wonders if Sieglinde is soon to be part of her repertoire. The role of Fricka is relatively short and this scene is the last we see of her in the Ring. De Young has great stage presence and although on the opposite side of the conductor’s podium from Wotan did not neglect to look directly at him. A pity he was too absorbed in the score or bobbing his head to the music to relate to her.

Out of place, but only because what needs to be said about this character and the singer needs to come after the earlier discussions. Hunding – the HK Phil went through more than one cast change in this role but came out on top with Falk Strukmann. Frankly, I wanted him to sing Wotan as well. Struckmann had the voice, the volume and stature and vocal expressiveness and physical presence to perfectly play Wotan at this stage of Wotan’s life. His was a dignified and stern Hunding that was totally believable. Hunding is the most ordinary of men in an ordinary situation that gets out of hand. This is a complete contrast to every other character in the entire opera. As such any over the top interpretations is simply misguided. This was the Hunding that we need. His ordinariness acts as a foil to the world of gods and demigods who are controlling his destiny, while at the same time losing control of their own. Hunding has been set up to be the fall-guy and although the same can be said of Siegmund, Hunding doesn’t have a god as a parent, and isn’t the focus of any demigod’s attention. He is forced to rely on other ordinary, and hugely flawed, mortals. We can’t sympathize with him, but we can recognize the impossible role he has been asked to fill in the machinations of power that cares nothing about him but are happy to nurture his darker side and use it to his detriment. He dominates his small domain as the gods do their vaster one. He destroys on a constrained field and for personal reasons what they destroy on a global field. He knows he acts from personal motives, the gods delude themselves that they act from impersonal motives and that any benefits are simply ancillary.

I believe Wagner expected that we, the audience, would overcome our usual tendency, to identify with main characters, and to shift the world of the gods so it fits into our own. That is when we finally see the Ring as he did. Wagner took into account the change of field between the human, the gods, demigods and understood what they each represent in our society, families and individual lives. He used this enlarged and non-static field of view as a way to attain a greater perspective on the human condition with all of its pettiness, sorrow, avarice, envy, hatred, pride, and narcissism. The only redemption that is possible is love. Wagner did go “where no man has gone before.” Audiences might feel, as another quote from semi-popular culture, from Wayne’s World, said: “We’re not worthy.” And yet as Wagner makes so clear, we are. It has taken me these number of viewings and listenings to start to see this opera as a holistic enterprise. I’m not claiming I’ve got the entire Ring just yet but I’m working on it.

There are multiple parallels and contrasts in this opera that stand out more and more as the interconnections become visible. One is of course based on the self-delusion of Wotan who dares to punish Brünnhilde for ‘traitorous’ acts when he is nothing if not a traitor to everything good and noble and wise in his own world. Wotan a god who could not exist if it were not for traitorous acts. Let me count the ways: He has been unfaithful to his wife, on multiple occasions, that we know of. He has betrayed his promise to the giants of their reward for building Valhalla. He has betrayed the gods by promising Freia as the giants’ prize. He betrays Alberich by tricking him for the gold. He betrays the Rheinmaidens by not returning their gold. He betrays the giants again by trying to keep the ring. He betrays his son and daughter by not intervening to save Sieglinde from her forced marriage, even as he shows up at the wedding. All he can do is bury his sword in a tree for Siegmund to find at a much later date. He betrays Siegmund by allowing the sword to be shattered. He betrays Fricka again by given the battle to Hunding then killing him. He betrays Brünnhilde by banishing her from him – and of course the ego-maniac he is, he sees this as the ultimate punishment. So I say, punish traitors? Get in line and the line is long and filled with the multiple duplicitous facets of Wotan.

One surprising parallel may have arisen visually from the timing of the entrance on stage by Brünnhilde. I can’t recall in other productions that we see her listening in on Fricka and Wotan or at least not for any length of time. By Brünnhilde’s coming on and in an apparent position to overhear, we see a parallel between Fricka’s argument for Wotan to kill Hunding, which is that he needs to upholds her honor. Later Brünnhilde uses her own and Wotan’s honor as her trump card in the battle between them for the nature of her punishment. The timing of the Thursday entrance made it seem as if she got the idea from Fricka. Interesting, no?

Of course, there’s more, much much more that can be said of this opera but I’m already at 4,000 words so I ought to be able to stop but not without a word about the 8 Walküries who were in good voice and very expressive. That brings us to the orchestra. The HK Phil is a force to be reckoned with and keeps getting better and better. I have never heard the ‘Magic Fire’ music sound more beautifully played than on Thursday night. It was transcendent and luminous. On Saturday, they moved that description back to the entirety of Wotan’s Farewell. A few more performances and they would surely have made the entire opera their own. That this work requires even more work from them is not something to be disheartened by rather it shows just how good they can be, that there are no short cuts to the top, and they are well on the road to being among the finest of Wagner orchestral interpreters. I look forward to Siegfried next year.

Congratulations and many thanks to Maestro van Zweden and the entire staff of HK Phil, the orchestra members, the executive, the staff, the Society and Board of Directors for putting Hong Kong on the map of not-to-be-missed Wagner performances.

Kudos too to Sue Elliott for her wonderful and insightful symposium on Die Walküre the preceding Sunday. Her insights and comments were very entertaining and enlightening. I may do a separate write up of that presentation as it deserves not to be jammed into this comment.

I have nothing but the highest praise for everyone connected with making this happen.

Usually I add some excerpts that I love but, highlights just don’t work for what this opera is all about. To do that means whole scenes and acts at a time. Hours and hours so I leave it to you to find what you love best. I just know that in the five or six I listened to in trying to find one to link here, there was a great deal of variation and I would like something about one but not everything and something else in another. Find the one that starts your heart racing when the act opens: you can picture the frantic Siegmund fleeing for his life, stumbling but never stopping as the hounds and killers keep pressing closer and closer and you finally let out a deep sigh of relief when he reaches a safe haven. Now the story begins.https://hksounds.wordpress.com/live-performance-2016/#What’s

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