Live – 2015

New Review

Maxim Vengerov, violin, Yu Long conducting, the HK Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday 8 PM.

Programme
Quiquen     d’un Pekin Opera
Ho / Chen Butterfly Lovers Concerto
Interval
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.  Patheteque

The first piece was something I just couldn’t get into. I have attended Peking (Beijing) opera performances but I failed to sense any resemblance in the piece. Perhaps with multiple listenings, and references to specific works, the allusions might become clearer but, I am not sure who of us non-specialists would do that. It was pleasant and nothing too dissonant or alarming but 2015 was the year of Tan Dun and he’s a very hard act to follow when it comes to contemporary music, whether Chinese or otherwise.

The second piece was why everyone was here, maybe the third piece as well since there were no noticeably empty seats after the break.

The Butterfly Lovers is easy to get into and has lovely melodies and charming rhythms. It may have the complexity, dynamism and emotional depths that other, more familiar concertos have, but I just couldn’t tell as I was lost without the more familiar classical sonata structure. I certainly enjoyed it but I wasn’t wowed.

It took the encores for that. The first of two encores was the second movement of Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins. Vengerov invited Jin Wang, our concertmaster, to join him and they did a fantastic job with this multi-layered piece. There was good synergy between them and although Wang, who has loosened up somewhat since his arrival a couple of years ago, still has some distance to go to look like he believes he belongs up there.

Then Vengerov did his solo encore: the adagio from Bach’s second sonata for violin. This was absolutely brilliant. I have heard this many, many times on records and possibly live but I have never heard it played with such precision, clarity and elegance of tone as tonight. Every note on every string, all the way from one end of the bow to the other, the softest pianissimos were laid out in every exquisite detail. Double stops, triple stops, can you get all four separately, simultaneously articulated with perfect harmony and melody combined? I think he did.

And it didn’t hurt that he may be playing the best sounding violin I have ever heard, so unlike my reaction to Izak Perlman’s violin only just over a month ago in the same concert hall from nearly the same location. (review here)

To my disappointment, the CD table outside in the foyer didn’t have a recording of the Bach and a quick check online didn’t turn up a recording by Vengerov of the complete Partitas and Sonatas. It’s gotta happen, TBS. Without question, that’s what I’d want to be listening to when the rising temperatures and sea waters put an end to life as we know it. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for ways to see that scenario never happens.

I found parts of the Tchaikovsky enjoyable but I couldn’t help thinking what might Eschenbach have done with it. I missed his incisiveness along with his tighter control of the orchestra, his skilled crafting of its overall sound, how he would have enhanced the sonority between sections, finely tuned the dynamics, shaping and phrasing with complete cohesion. Under the baton of Yu Long we got a well-played piece with little drama or emotional fervor. It was lacking in the passion that is so important when an orchestra is playing playing Tchaikovsky.

Why is this symphony called, ‘Patheque’? Where were the soaring raptures and thrilling ecstasy of the third movement? Through these raptures of joy, that carry over from the third movement, Tchaikovsky provided a musical vehicle to escort the human spirit safely through the expression of utter despair and profound sorrow that follows in the fourth movement. The third is what sustains us through to and beyond the final note. Without that great impassioned outpouring in the third movement, Tchaikovsky’s overarching design is destroyed and the deep connection with the listeners’ emotions is severed.

I wonder what Vengerov thought, given that he, himself, joined us to listen from the audience. As for me, after the interval, instead of a musical miracle, it was just another Saturday night at the symphony.

Vengerov, happily surrounded by autograph seekers after the concert.

Vengerov, happily surrounded by autograph seekers after the concert.

A side note, at the encore, Vengerov said thank you in Mandarin and promised to learn more for his next visit to Hong Kong. Even better-he should learn Cantonese.

 

 

A hint of what Vengerov does with Bach is in this excerpt of a master class of the adagio and fugue of sonata #1. You can see and hear for yourself exactly what I said about him above:

http://www.medici.tv/#!/maxim-vengerov-bach-adagio-and-fugue-from-sonata-no-1-for-solo-violin
And here is the Sarabanda from Partita #2

***

New Review, January 1, 2016

Itzak Perlman, violin, Rohan de Silva, piano – Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Sunday,

See those tiny blobs of light? That's them. at the end of the concert.

See those tiny blobs of light? That’s them. at the end of the concert.

November 8, 8:00 PM

Programme

Jean-Marie Leclair  Violin Sonata in D, Op.9, No. 3
Johannes Brahms    Scherzo in c-minor, Op. Posth. (from F-A-E Sonata)
César Franc               Violin Sonata in A
Intermission
Igor Stravinsky          Suite Italienne

Additions announced but not in the printed programme:
All I could catch of the first one was Fritz Kreisler
followed by Albeniz ‘Sevilla’ (Arr. Heifetz)
Movie theme Schindler’s List
Prokofiev March from Love of Three Oranges arr by?
Brahms ‘Hungarian Dance #1,’ arranged by Heifetz

Itzak Perlman is one of the world’s foremost and renowned violinists and has been for a very long time. I saw him many years ago when he played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Back then he walked to the stage using braces and other implements to assist him onto the stage and to his playing location. These days he uses an electrified vehicle to not only move onto the stage but he remains in the chair while playing. From then on the action is all musical.

Normally, I listen to several versions of the programme pieces before the concert. I know how important that is to orient oneself to the music but this time, there has just been too much going on, including a concert last night with Los Texmaniacs, in an earlier review here, and their follow up in the foyer of this same concert venue a few few hours earlier. It was quite a jump to go from “Al mover el bote” (Shake Your Booty) to Le Clair’s violin sonata but span the gap successfully, I did.

The Leclair was lovely and set a mellow and melodic tone to open the evening’s program. I might have been humming the Texmex sounds when I walked in but they went on hold during the performance. A portion in the third movement sounded as if it might have been an inspiration for Bizet’s gypsy card scene in Carmen.

For the most part, the printed program was not one I had heard before, with a single exception, but most of the additions were ones I, and many more in the audience, could recognize. There was even the scattered beginnings of a standing ovation which is extremely rare in HK.

This probably sounds outrageous, but I found the sound of Mr Perlman’s violin to be too bright. The word ‘squeal’ came unbidden to my mind. I missed the warmer tones that other violinists have been able to bring to this venue. With the overwrought sound, it was difficult for me to notice some of the nuances, including double stops and small variations in pitch and vibrato as the dominant overtones rode roughshod over their neighbors, which was surely a pity. Of course, the overly air-conditioned hall that caused me to have a coughing fit, didn’t help with the nuances. I also had to bob and weave non-stop because of the man, two rows in front, continually moved his head. He was possibly the tallest person in the entire audience and yet, with no one to block his view, his head was like a balloon on a string on a windy day. He clearly had no interest in the music and I have seen five-year olds who had better control.

All of the pieces were lovely and enjoyable and I was especially pleased to rediscover the Brahms work which I had heard before but without remembering its name. The Franc was very recognizable as Franc, a composer whose works I have long enjoyed.

The Stravinsky was very interesting as I was not familiar with his neoclassical style. This was a very flowing work with many easily accessibly melodies, something more placid than the Fire Bird or Rite of Spring, I was more used to. I was aware of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony but had not known, until reading the programme notes, that this was part of a greater movement at that time. Thanks to Keith Anderson for the informative notes that traced this suite to Stravinsky’s work on the ballet Pulcinella with its 18th Century musical influences.

Maybe I’m dreaming but in the opening theme of the Stravinsky second movement, which repeats again at about 3:09, I heard a clear influence from Bach, that reminded me of St. Matthew’s Passion, more specifically the ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen,’ one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. There were no encores.

All in all, quite the musical day (week actually)!

Two versions of the charming Leclair:

The sonata’s opening movement by the incomparable David Oistrakh

Then Henry Szeryng with the complete sonata

A much younger Itzak Perlman playing the first three movements of Suite Italienne

Julia Hamari sings ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ and if there’s a better singer of this, I haven’t heard it.

Young Perlman plays Sarasate’s ‘Zigeunerweisen’ with an also young James Levine standing on the podium.

***

Review, December 20, 2015

Il Trovatore, by Giuseppe Verdi – presented by Musica Ilt coverViva, Saturday, December 12, 2015, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, 7:45 PM
Orchestra conducted by Lio Kwok-man, Producer and director: Lo Kingman

Cast: (Main characters)
Manrico: Luis Chapa
Leonora: Marina Costa Jackson
Azucena: Robynne Redmon
Count de Luna: Michael Corvino
Ferrando: Freddie Tong

Il Trovatore is my favorite Verdi opera. This one is special. Maybe because it was the first opera that I ‘got,’ back when I decided to discover why intelligent and discerning people were fans of opera while I simply didn’t get it. Sure I had heard some lovely arias and some beautiful singers but a whole opera, really? They must be mad with all that screeching in an incomprehensible language.

The first one I tried was back in the days before surtitles, so not only was the music unfamiliar, it was impossible to know what they were singing. I had gone as far as reading a synopsis before attending that Portland Opera production but it wasn’t enough. It just left me baffled. Perhaps it was the choice, Der Freischütz?

Then I went to Seattle. Before that Seattle Opera Il Trovatore, I had no idea. After it, I did. Sometimes what you like in your first exposure to something can seem less great when you know more. Over the years I have seen Il Trovatore live and telecast perhaps half-a-dozen times and have listened to it many more and it just gets better and better.

Verdi is on a non-stop roll of gorgeous melodies in every act and for every character. The melodies aren’t simply lovely, they also are expressive and vocally very demanding. It takes five top-notch singers to pull off a great production. Most fall short.

Unlike most reviews and comments I have read about this opera, this opera, for me, is not solely about love triangles, jealous rivals and other more common staples of opera plots. This is one of Verdi’s strongest social commentaries and he makes his points very powerfully. I have read statements, including by those involved in opera management and production, which disparage this opera and say it’s silly and its plot is incoherent. That’s true but only if you aren’t paying attention. The first aria depicts a very bigoted character set in an intolerant society. So much so, that just to be a member of the demonized minority meant you could be accused of criminal activity, in this case sorcery, and with no trial or proof, could be burned at the stake. The aria tells us, that Count de Luna, the baritone role in this opera, had a brother who was dying of some disease as an infant and a gypsy woman was accused of having caused this.

This horrifying outcome is perfectly acceptable to the character, Ferrando, captain of the guards, who sings it and by the soldiers who are listening to him. They are additionally shown to be ignorant and highly superstitious, cringing in fright at harmless shadows.

No thoughtful person could come away from this opening with the idea that this was a trivial scene or an honorable act or that the gypsy woman was guilty of anything. During this performance, I pictured Donald Trump spewing this same racist garbage. Just substitute the targeted group. (Could a closer look at the demographics of those commentators who fail to note this, and the other important issues, be informative?)

For those who might suggest that this is an indication that Verdi himself was bigoted, you just have to listen to the words and music of this scene and that of Azucena’s to understand which position has gravamen and which does not.

The evening’s production was by and large well done but this opening could be stronger using today’s enhanced technology. Just imagine: a large projected scene behind or beside the singers: we see the bedroom where the child is. The mother and nurse are fretting over the baby. They send for the gypsy to cast his horoscope. The gypsy is seen as she enters and soldiers rush in as she is laying out the Tarot cards. She runs and is captured. The scene closes with flames.

Doing this would allow even those who are socially tone deaf not to have to rely solely on Verdi to get the picture. For those who already understand this, it would enhance the intensity. Win-win.

The second scene gives us the fuller view of what happened to the gypsy through the arias of her daughter, Azucena, who also introduces, in a very powerful way, the second issue: vengeance. Azucena’s aria makes clear that simply being gypsy was enough to cause them to accuse her and then kill her. The story of Il Trovatore unfolds from there with an avalanche of cruelty and violence from those who seek revenge that is always well-justified in their own minds.

Nothing good, to any degree, of any sort and in any way, results from this drive for vengeance in this opera. And however much we might wish that this were not a serious issue, now, in our own societies, it is a lesson we are still far from learning. Just think of the US reaction after 911 and the recent French reaction to the bombings in Paris while those on the other side use vengeance to justify, to themselves, their own violence.

Il Trovatore doesn’t shy from other issues, including the church and how it is used and disregarded when and as convenient; the role of women and how they are thought of as property belonging to one male or the other and how they are treated, ignored, lusted after, rejected and abused, not necessarily in their own right but in order to attack the men they are associated with. When the Count’s men capture Azucena, they do so both for revenge and to entice Manrico to come to her rescue. Later, when Manrico accuses Leonora of having given herself to the Count in order to save him, Manrico, he spurns her. Perhaps we can add a misplaced sense of honor and questionable priorities to the list of social evils tackled in this opera.

Although the troubadour, is the title character, he is not the hero of this story, Leonora is. A tribute, perhaps to Beethoven’s Leonore who was the hero of his opera Fidelio, (revised and successfully premiered in Vienna in 1814) which at one time had been titled Leonore. Of course, there are other operas with characters named Leonora, including by Verdi himself, e.g., La Forza del Destino. Or maybe the name came from the libretto, written by Salvadore Cammarano, or the original play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez with whatever reasons for that particular name.

When you can gather the finest singers, orchestra, conductor and a first class stage director, who either enhances the impact or gets out of the way of the music, then you have a production to remember for a lifetime. I am still hoping to see that one perfect production. And as to who sang in that first one in Seattle long ago, I found the name of Božena Ruk-Fočić as Leonora (see Youtube below) but none of the rest of the cast. How good was it objectively? I have no idea except it was good enough to make me love opera in general from then on, and this opera in particular. (More about the Seattle Opera: http://www.seattleoperablog.com/2014/03/leon-lishner-menottis-original-secret.html)

The second time was in San Francisco with Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland and this was when they were both so big they could barely get close enough to embrace. I am sure the singing was great but their visuals detracted from the overall effect. In looking for the full cast I discovered there is a recording of this performance which reminded me that the Azucena had been Yelena Obraztsova and Ingvar Wixell was the Count. I had no idea such a copy of that existed. (Youtube for old time’s sake below)

The Hong Kong cast didn’t match those long ago standards but I wasn’t expecting them to. Marina Costa Jackson, as Leonora, was the highlight with her lovely voice, strong singing technique and attractive and passionate stage and vocal presence. What she has to master is developing her pianissimo. Once she gets that down, she should have a long and spectacular career if she makes wise choices in repertoire and scheduling. The demands and requests will be or already are coming thick and fast. She is definitely one to keep an eye on and we’ll be very lucky to see her again.

Doing four consecutive Manricos is a superhuman task. The other tenor was MIA and Luis Chapa’s Manrico really deserves our admiration for guts and gusto to have taken over all of the performances. He gave it a good try but nevertheless left something to be desired both in intensity, stage presence and vocal control. There were several less than elegant register changes that have to be worked on. We were notified at the last moment of the tenor substitution and perhaps Chapa too had little notice.

Redmon as Azucena, was very passionate and intense in her performing skills. She has an attractive voice but lacked the power and volume required to match the role. She was unable to make herself heard at times and when she was, it was without the command and power needed. Also, there were times when her lower register seemed to be disconnected from the rest of her voice, almost as if she flipped a switch. Quite disconcerting. Regardless, I don’t think anyone could have wished for a better actress in this role. Even with the vocal issues, she was a completely believable and engrossing Azucena.

The Count, one of my favorite baritone roles, was barely there. I can’t say he had a bad voice but he had zero charisma, and lacked power in voice and presence. Count de Luna is nothing if not the representation of brute power. Physically, Corvino is not a large man and the costumes simply swamped him. I had to wonder if someone backstage had a personal grudge against him. Different costumes and colors might have made a huge improvement.

There is apparently a controversy in the world of opera commentators as to whether this opera should more correctly be considered as belonging to the bel canto or verismo tradition. It seems quite clear that it incorporates elements of both musical styles. This is the world of Fusion. Get over it.

Conductor Lio Kwok-man is a (nearly) local-boy-makes-good story. Lio comes from Macau and is a graduate of the HKAPA (Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts). He began with piano and obtained a scholarship to Julliard and took further studies at the Curtis Institute. Somewhere along the line he lost the piano and became a conduct which, he has said, had been his passion since he was a small boy. He recently was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Well done! And thanks for remembering your roots. We have been very fortunate to have him conduct a number of performances every year here, including the Musica Viva operas.

The direction was respectful, for the most part, which is to be expected from Lo Kingman, who in the ten or so years I have been attending his performances has never let me down. The City Hall Concert Hall is a small venue designed for recitals and chamber orchestra. This constraint on space and props has not been a constraint on artistic excellence. (Do I think they need a proofreader for the titles? Yes. There are still a few typos and an occasional disconnect between titles and what’s on stage. The good news is: this is improving.)

Law with performers taking a curtain call

Lo with performers taking a curtain call

I think Lo could go farther or, more correctly, I want him to go farther, but in today’s world of operatic directors, who must think they are moving in a positive direction simply by using technology, and who are instead more often destroying the underlying art, I’ll take Lo’s sensitive and sincere commitment to the emotional truths inherent in the opera, anytime. If only we could have more from him, more often.

Here are some treats from Youtube that show the wonderful music of this opera and what great singers can do with it.

Božena Ruk-Fočić still sounds great to me. I really like her phrasing here, perhaps she has been the template for me over all these years:

Pavarotti sings Ah si ben mio and di quella pira with a bit of Joan Sutherland in between from that SF Opera production:

From The Met act 3:

A lovely, young Leontyne Price sings D”amor sull’ali rose. No problems with pianissimo here, or anything else:

Aprile Milo – the pianissimo to die for followed by a beautiful Miserere:

***

Review, December 14, 2015
Los Texmaniacs – Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, Saturday, November 7, 8:00 PM

(There were second day events too.)

On stage having a party with members of the audience

On stage having a party with members of the audience

Performers:
Max Baca – bajo sexto
Josh Baca – accordion
Noel Hernandez – bass guitar
Cougar Estrada – drums

Programme included:
Rain, Rain
Como te quiero / Lolllipop Polka
Danzon Juarez
A mover el bote (Shake your booty)
Muchachos alegres
How Can a Beautiful Woman Be So Ugly?
Huapango (chotis / redova / waltz)
La Bamba

Of all the kinds of music I love, the one I thought I’d never see in Hong Kong was this one. As I read the list of the performers who were coming as part of the World Cultures Festival, (see pervious posts) and getting more and more excited by each one, I was stopped cold: there, astonishingly, and most thrilling of all, was Tejano music. I didn’t know Los Texmaniacs but I had fallen in love with this style, whether you call it Tejano, conjunto, cumbia, or onda, many years ago in Dallas.

And thanks to the internet, I was able to go back to my earlier-years connections to this music, to locate an actual playlist (http://knonhistory.blogspot.hk/) that I used to listen to on Simon (the Diamond) Molina’s radio show on KNON, Dallas. It was wonderful remembering such performers as David Lee Garza, La Sombra, Little Joe y la familia, La Mafia, Tierra and of course Grupo Mazz. What a treasure trove of Tejano music is available on Youtube! I listened to many songs and mixes and found the first song I think of first when I think of this type of music. “Que Porque Te Quiero” by Grupo Mazz (see below).

(Listening now to cumbia gave new insight into the dance styles of certain partners back in junior high school. Certainly the dance steps that I still remember fit seamlessly into that particular rhythm, FWIW.)

Tejano music in Hong Kong has been a long time coming and a great way to take a break in a much too extended forced feed of only classical music. We need much more variety in Hong Kong’s music scene at the same high quality as we get in the classical music genre.

Tejano music is infectious, lively, melodic, danceable, singable and invigorating. At times it is reminiscent of zydeco which is also hard to find live here. And can you believe that in 11 years and some, there has never been a concert of reggae music!? It was hard for anyone not to tap their feet or bob their heads while Los Texmaniacs were playing.

This was a style that many in the local audience were hearing for the first time. I am so proud of Hong Kong for having such a large crowd show up to this, for them, unknown musical genre. Actually this genre is pretty much unknown in many circles in the USA as well. I am sure that many who attended will have become converts.

Many thanks to Joanna Lee who was a major factor in getting Los Texmaniacs here and for sharing some of her photos.

Thanks also to Venancio Figueroa for sharing his photos, especially those from the following day’s events where there was a jam session and a free concert in the Cultural Centre foyer.

Jamming with the locals in the am

Jamming with the locals in the am

At the free concert in the afternoon.

Max and Noel in the foyer

Max and Noel in the foyer

Josh Baca in the foyer

Josh Baca in the foyer

Playing a favorite Chinese song with guzheng

Playing a favorite Chinese song with guzheng

Apparently when they were playing in China they found a song they really liked, “The Moon Represents my Heart,” and they played it for us at the evening concert without the guzheng and then in the foyer with.

There were people dancing and many were trying to understand what they were listening to. One man near me, thought they were German, but I tried to explain that the music had German roots but they were from America but of Mexican background. My slight grasp of Chinese failed and I had to search through a flyer to find and point out to him the locations of where they were from in Chinese. He and the rest seemed to be enjoying the music and he stayed till the end as did many others.

I hadn’t heard of them before this festival brought them to Hong Kong. If you go to Youtube, you can find many videos that feature them. The one from the Library of Congress may be lengthy but it doesn’t capture any of the excitement they are able to generate in a live concert that isn’t in a library. May they come back soon.

My favorite Tejano by Grupo Mazz. It makes clear the often overlooked connection between Tejano and rhythm and blues:

David Lee Garza live:

Selina, RIP, teaches about the history of Tejano music and introduces us to a tiny bit of dance:

And she sings live from a TV programme with a tornado watch sign (brings back memories):

Los Texmaniacs who started more recently than the others mentioned above.

And finally a documentary on the Tejano Music Awards filmed in 1987. The awards started in the early 1980s and continues. If you can get past the low production values, you’ll find it quite interesting:

***

Review November 29, 2015Kodo 2

Dadan 2015 by Kodo! 8:00 PM, Friday, October 30, 2015, Shatin Town Hall Auditorium
Programme
Toudoufuu
Kaden
Colour
Biei
Tomoe
Ajara
Phobos
Mute
Kusawake
Kei Kei
Dan

Following the performance was a meet the artist opportunity.

I was thrilled after I got the brochure from the World Culture Festival and started viewing it. Simply thinking about seeing Angélique Kidjo was mind-boggling but as I continued reading the list of artists I couldn’t believe my eyes. Some I couldn’t go to for one reason or other but – Kodo! Here was a group I had known about and had seen, many, many years before and I had absolutely loved them. Now I was looking at rapture.

Kodo’s performance was brilliant. If you have never been in a taiko performance, and that’s what you are, you’re ‘in it,’ rather than ‘to it’ or ‘at it,’ you have missed something incomparable that is not easily substituted by other experiences, not even drumming of a different kind. You are immersed in the sound and the percussive waves that come off the many different sizes and types of drums which range from tiny and handheld to giant ones that need multiple persons to move them. (I recall an even larger drum from those long ago days, a true giant that all but filled the stage. Did I dream it? Maybe that drum no longer part of the repertoire or perhaps just too expensive to move anymore?)

If drumming isn’t your cup of green tea, perhaps semi-naked and very buff Japanese men are more to your liking, and what’s not to like about that? Although, in my memory, the drums were bigger and the men wore fewer clothes. Ah well.

It is difficult to know how to describe these artists and their performances for those who have never seen taiko and this is taiko at its highest level. There are intricate and small sounds that blend and intertwine with each of the other drums. There are also large and powerful strokes and reverberations that fill the hall with sounds that almost lift you out of your seat and set your spirit soaring. Although there are no melodies or singing accompaniment, there are some chants and plenty of fascinating rhythmic lines and flows that keeps the audience completely captivated. The lack of a melodic hook, so necessary in many other types of music, is not missed here.

The different artists display different talents, skills and techniques. There is an element of dance that arises in the broad strokes, the stances and lifting of arms that are required. As is to be expected, some are more graceful and disciplined in their movements than others.

There is one piece where they add another player and then another and so on, as the piece continues. It made me wonder if Ravel might not have heard just such a performance before composing his famous “Bolero.” I didn’t look it up.

Three of the members spoke through translation from Cantonese to Japanese and back. Luckily the man next to me let me know the gist of what was being said. None of the questions were especially interesting or memorable. I’d had a question during the Kodo 3performance but forgot all about it at the one time I might have asked: Who makes these gorgeous drums and how have they preserved this remarkable skill? I didn’t look that up either.

After almost 30 years, with new, young artists, of course, to finally see Kodo again – definitely a highlight for the next 30.
o-daiko

This is called ‘Lion’ and includes some of the smaller percussive instruments and chants.

***

Review, November 14, 2015

Angélique Kidjo! Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8:oo PM, Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dominic James – acoustic and electric guitar
Ben Zwerin – bass
Edgardo Yayo Serka – drums

Quick, somebody, pinch me, – no, wait; I don’t want to wake up. For the next couple of weeks, a miracle of non-classical greatness, has been happening here in Hong Kong. Last month it was Sara Baras and noAK onstage 2 (1)w, the great Benin artist, Angélique Kidjo, Queen of Afro Pop, has come to cast her remarkable spell over us. Her concert was one of the most engaging, interactive and invigorating performances I had seen in many a year and one of the most exciting shows in Hong Kong.

When the show began she said it was a party – she was so right! She talked with us and gave us insights that connected us to her and to the music, the lyrics and the underlying issues they dealt with. She is very committed politically to women’s rights as well as speaking out for Africa, which, as she noted, is where we are all from. [The most recent findings of Homo Naledi have further confirmed that Africa, and southern Africa, to be precise, is the birthplace of the human species. -ed]

Her music is Afro pop, a genre we don’t get much of in Hong Kong. It has been ten years or so since the Arts Festival brought Salif Keita and Yousou N’Dour. We did get a couple other African artists, including Ladysmith Black Mombazo subsequently but they are not Afro pop but more of a traditional group.

Angélique had us out of our seats, hand clapping and foot stomping. Towards the end, Angélique came down and circled round the aisles before returning to the stage. By the end of the show, she invited the audience to come on stage to dance. I’d say at least a hundred or more did exactly that while the rest of us danced at our seats or in the aisle. Hong Kongers in the Cultural Centre Concert Hall just don’t do that and and yet tonight we did.

Someone was busy texting instead of enjoying the event. Ah, well.

Someone was busy texting instead of enjoying the event. Ah, well.

The audience was a mix of all races and included locals as well as cross-border visitors, tourists and expats. Several in attendance, were of African heritage, and wore their colorful native clothing in honor of the event. Seems it takes such an event for us to see just how mulit-cultural Hong Kong really is.

Most everyone had their phones out and were taking photos, some were recording the party on stage and one was texting on stage.

Kidjo’s voice is clear and powerful. She conveys great compassion, command and tenderness. Two songs, most likely, “Batonga” and “Senamou,” sung, with Dominic James on acoustic, classical guitar, were lovely and brought tears to her eyes with the powerful message they carried. The programme notes say this about “Batonga”: “Kidjo made up the word, ‘Batonga’ as her assertion of the right of education for girls in Africa, that turned out to be the name of her song and Foundation.” Some of the other, memorable songs included were her tribute to Miriam Makeba, “Pata Pata, ”Afirika,” “Awalole” and “Ebile.”

From Hong Kong she was heading to New York for a charity event that will help girls get an education. She is passionate in this. She said it was the first time she had been to Hong Kong and didn’t have much time to see our city. Hope she comes back soon to get us up and out of our seats once more.

I love all kinds of music and there’s been an unequal representation for far too long. I’ve been suffering from a deficit of non-classical music and finally the drought has come to a brief but welcome end. May this just be the start!

“Afirika” (Kidjo from Cape Town)

“Batonga”

“Malaika” (Angel)

And the original “Malaika” by the late South African diva, Miriam Makeba. This video has Swahili and English subtitles with an informative introduction.

***

Review, November 6, 2015

Concert by Ian Bostridge, tenor and Yang Xiufei, guitar (A programme of ancient to modern music)
City Hall Concert Hall, Sunday, 8:00 PM, October 25, 2015

Programme
Dowland         “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”
Britten (arr. Bream)     “Second Lute sSong of the Earl of Essex” (from Gloriana)
Argento          “Chopin to a Friend” (from Letters from Composers)
Schubert        “Die Mainacht,” D 194
“Die Konig in Thule,” D. 367
“An Die Musik,” D. 547
“Ständchen,” (from Schwanengesang, D. 957
Britten        Songs from the Chinese, OP. 58
Intermission
Chinese Ancient Tune (arr. by Yang Xiufei) “Fisherman’s Song at Eventide”
Debussy (arr. Bream)    “La Fille aux Cheveaus de Lin
Falla            “Homenaje, le Tombeau de Debussy”
Spanish Dance No.1 (from La Vida Breve)
Goss            The Book of Songs
Dowland   “Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite”
“White as Lilies was Her Face”
“My Thoughts are Winged with Hopes”
“Flow My Tears”
“In Darkness Let Me Dwell”

Flowers for the artists

Flowers for the artists

Encores: A Chinese song sung by Mr Bostridge in Chinese and a traditional folk song arranged by Benjamin Britten, followed by “The Water is Wide” (There is another song, “Carrickfergus” which seems to be the Irish incarnation – see awesome renditions below)

This was an unusual concert for local audiences and perhaps for audiences most anywhere. The repertoire is not your standard fare. Little was melodic or familiar, other than the Schubert. And who wouldn’t love “An Die Musik,” one of the most beautiful songs ever written?

How often do we have the opportunity to hear classical guitar accompanying an accomplished vocalist? Not since many years ago when Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening performed together in the pleasure of their company. In contrast to that concert, this one expressed very dark sentiments in almost all of the lyrics. Having an unusual combination of artists plus a programme that doesn’t reach out to enrapture the audience with either profound thought or beautiful melodies, is likely not going to be to many people’s tastes.

If this one had to go dark, I would have loved to see and hear Mr Bostridge sing Schubert’s Winterreise of which he is a noted interpreter. He has a very interesting lecture about Winterreise which is on the internet as well as having had a book published on it this year. Surely, Winterreise accompanied by guitar would be an exceptional evening.

I attended that remarkable and somber song cycle earlier this year when it was sung by a barritone, Roman Trekel who was accompanied by Ian Pohl on  piano) I would love to have seen it again sung by Mr Bostridge, who, as a tenor, would bring a different interpretation and tone. The intensity of the collaboration is such that perhaps they have not had sufficient time working together to take on Winterreise.

The Falla and other guitar pieces were lovely and melodic, although at times Ms Yang seemed a bit rushed and inexact which was surprising for a guitarist her caliber.

I don’t have a lot a lot to say about this concert. I don’t think it really connected with most of us and that’s a pity since they are both exceptional artists.

Ständchen

Yang Xiufei 楊雪霏 and the Chinese Fisherman’song  漁 舟唱晚

Van Morrison and the Chieftains and “Carrickfergus” (Thanks to The Immortal Jukebox for introducing this version to me.) In just a week, the Chieftains will be in Hong Kong!!!

Here is “The Water is Wide” by the first person I remember hearing sing it. It was at Poor David’s in Dallas – Rory Block

***

Christoph eschenback and Tzimon Barto thank the musicians. Barto is the giant on the right-hand side.

Christoph eschenback and Tzimon Barto thank the musicians. Barto is the giant on the right-hand side.

October 30, 2015

Christoph Eschenbach and the HK Phil, with guest pianist Timon Barto, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday, October 24, 2105

Programme
Dvořák Carnival Overture
Gershwin Concerto in F
Interval
Brahms Symphhone No.1 in c-minor, Op. 68

For most of my life, I haven’t much liked symphonic music. I loved concertos; they were great but I needed that solo voice, something coherent and clear that I could follow. Christoph Eschenbach changed all that and he has been my favorite conductor, by far, since that evening when I saw him conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in concert here in 2011. Eschenbach absolutely made it clear what it means to be a conductor. His expressiveness combined with his precision and articulation bringing out every part of the orchestra and each nuance of the score is incomparable. I discovered that with a guide like him, and there aren’t many others like him, I didn’t have to have that solo voice to make sense of the work. I could follow it because the conductor had a clear vision and the ability to bring that out so everyone could hear and understand it. One of Eschenbach’s early musical influences was Wilhelm Furtwängler who was the first Wagner conductor I heard, on recording, that totally blew me away.

The Gershwin piano concerto was performed by Tsimon Barto and if you haven’t seen Tsimon Barto before, you are in for a shock as he looks to be about 6’ 5” tall and weigh about 230 lbs seemingly all muscle. The kind of guy you’d more expect to hear was in the finals of a body-building competition rather than seated at the piano looking about to burst out of his suit.

Captain America? The Incredible Hulk would be more like it, as long as you overlook Barto’s not being green. We’ve seen a lot of backless outfits favored by the young women pianists these days but this is one pianist that some others might enjoy seeing in something a bit more revealing.

Barto’s playing, however, belied his massive and powerful appearance. Yes, he had those attributes but he had much more. He played the most wonderful soft notes that seemed to be floating above the keyboard. Beautiful! The Gershwin is fairly well known in the piano repertoire but I can’t recall that I have heard it here in Hong Kong in the past ten or so years. Certainly, if there was one, the performance  did not leave the same kind of lasting impression as Barto’s performance is going to do. There is much to enjoy in this concerto with its melodies joining modern rhythms and jazz influences. This work ought to be played more often.

Both the Carnival Overture by Dvořák and Brahms’ First Symphony allowed Maestro Eschenbach to take centre stage and make his mastery apparent without the distraction of a soloist. With this conductor, I welcome the opportunity to hear his musical vision. There were elements in each of the works that reminded me of Wagner whose influence from the mid-19 Century on cannot be overestimated.

The programme notes, by Dr Marc Rochester, tell us that Wagner was bored with the first movement of the symphony, “Wagner attending a performance of the work, later described his impatience with this substantial movement (almost 20 minutes in length) while he waited for ‘an idea, a melody that irresistibly fills the universe with grandeur and emotion.” So I ended up thinking about that during the first movement and kind of got what Wagner was saying. This movement seems to be a series of introductory and preparatory remarks that never actual get to any topic, always staying in that unresolved and inconclusive state without generating the tension that Wagner was so adept at providing. And, although certainly there were many differences, this first movement made me think of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde. In Wagner’s case, we don’t get resolution for another five hours but the tension can be almost unbearable.

But perhaps Wagner said that to counter critic Eduard Hanslick who wrote that “‘Brahms’s artistic kinship with Beethoven must be plain to every observer.’” The literature on Wagner makes it very clear that he had even less than zero regard for Hanslick who has been said to be the model for his ever so disagreeable character, Sextus Beckmesser in Die Miestersinger.
Regardless of Wagner’s criticism, which has some validity, Brahms’s first symphony has a secure position in the orchestral repertoire.

Christoph Eschenbach and the HK Phil

Christoph Eschenbach and the HK Phil

The Hong Kong Phil really rose to the occasion, and if they have ever played better than tonight, it could only have been the concert they gave in 2011 of Rachmaninov’s  Piano Concerto No. 3 and his Symphony No. 3 conducted by Dutch conductor, Lawrence Renes, Simon Trpceski piano. The HK Phil are on their way to becoming quite a lovely ensemble. The biggest deficit they face at the moment is their sound. The average quality of the instruments themselves doesn’t match that of the world’s top orchestras. When they finally get hold of those kinds of instruments for the entire orchestra, I’m not sure in a blind listening if there would be much to separate them from ‘the big boys and girls.”

It’s a pity that the house wasn’t full. Probably not standard enough of a programme nor famous enough soloist. I’m just guessing because the evening certainly wasn’t lacking in stellar musicality and anyone who chose not to come because they thought it wouldn’t be great made a bad decision. Again, no standing ovation but I heard that Friday night’s concert audience did give an SO. I guess it’s just Saturday night’s crowd that’s either too jaded or too tired to stand up when it is approriate.

Bravo for this exciting and most excellent evening.

Tzmon in short sleeves is worth a look, even when speaking German

An introduction from the Kennedy Center with Verdi’s Requiem in the background:

At the Kennedy Center with Lang Lang playing Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor for Piano (Excerpt)for Four Hands, D.940

An interview in English with Christoph Eschenbach on Mahler

***

Review October 23, 2015

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini – Sponsored by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Presented by Opera Hong Kong, a production of Taormina Opera Festival, Italy
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Sunday October 11, 3:00 PM.

Cast
Tosca – He Hui (Hui He)
Cavaradossi – Dai Yiuqiang, Warren Mok, Wei Song (yes, all three)
Scarpia – Sebastian Catani
Angelotti – Freddy Tong
Spoletto – Chen Yong
Il Sagratano – Sammy Chien Sum-ming

Director – Enrico Castiglione
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi

The last Tosca I saw (Paris, Bastille) made me so angry I wrote a short story about a reviewer of a Tosca production that doesn’t exist – but sure should. A production that would put the revolutionary fervor back in so that it truly resonates with contemporary audiences as it must have done originally.

As I was waiting for the performance to begin, hoping it would not be anything like that previous Paris production, it struck me that I was sitting in the audience of an Italian opera, being performed in Hong Kong with projected translations in English and Chinese while in my mind I was still seeing the images from the live wildlife webcams I have been watching daily in preparation for a trip to South Africa next Easter. The sublimity and the absurdity of this situation was compounded as I realized the dividing line between the two concepts had become unexpectedly unclear.

At the intermission, I looked at the young woman in the seat next to me, who was attending her first opera performance, and thought about what it’s like when the first one turns out to be the best; how you don’t realize it until you go most of a lifetime not seeing as good again. That is her likely fate if she continues to attend the opera. The next Tosca is bound to disappoint. However, the next opera in Hong Kong is not Tosca and is likely to be fabulous, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, in December.

Dai Yuqiang

Dai Yuqiang

Warren Mok

Warren Mok

By now, you can probably tell – I liked it. The production wasn’t perfect but it came close and you know that’s both wonderful and also how that can be so annoying. If only they hadn’t decided to play cute with the three separate tenors and put in a different one per act, and then in the third act have all three on stage to finish the aria, “E lucevan le stella”. This was grandstanding and terribly distracting, draining away the dramatic narrative and emotional impact of the scene. This aria is not simply a pretty tune in a trivial scene but a crucial part of our understanding of the character. Tenors have been ridiculed for years in the literature surrounding opera. It certainly looked deserved this night.

The tenors have contrasting styles and vocal timbres which could make for an interesting concert but hardly appropriate for an opera which isn’t merely a vocal vehicle in which to show off. This is gimmickry that has no place in an art form. Fortunately, such antics are not common and wouldn’t be in the top ten list of things to avoid in an opera.

That being said, I had to wonder if Wei Song

Wei Song

Wei Song

didn’t need the help of this already scheduled mini-reunion of “China’s Three Tenors” because he seemed disconnected to the story, explicable perhaps because he wasn’t in the opera until that point which may well have exacted an emotional deficit for a singer in such an impassioned role, either that or he was ill. I am certain that at one point He Hui spoke very discretely and gave him his words. I didn’t see a prompter’s box or screen to assist in this way. If she did do that –  another reason for a brava.

Reasons that anyone goes to see Tosca, might include the music, the story, the singers, production, direction sets, etc. and in this case you’d be very pleased with all of them. I chose this performance because this was one of the two in which He Hui sang Tosca.

Hui He

Hui He

She was fabulous. A great actress who has exquisite vocal technique. Her voice is among the best with superb control allowing for delicate pianissimos as well as full-on volume when needed. She is a passionate actress and was completely in the role from start to finish and luckily the production allowed that to happen. Luckily she didn’t have to worry about climbing over slick-looking rocks or other projecting props, singing in pitch blackness, or being hoisted over the stage in a sling. There was none of the craziness that one fears will be added because, apparently, some directors think that is the only way to get people to come to the opera. IMHO, it is much more likely to get people to attend and want to come again by being faithful to the music, the drama and the emotions depicted therein and by treating the audience as well as the singers and composer with dignity and respect.

Sebastian Catana

Sebastian Catana

Catana was believable as Scarpia if you think of Scarpia as an undetected sociopath. That’s the kind they say is the most dangerous because such people are able to move unsuspected in normal society. Although this quality may be  more realistic in life, it doesn’t ooze with evil the way we want our onstage villains, especially Scarpia, to do. We want to hate him in a visceral way based on stereotypical villain attributes and Mr. Cantana was much too civilized and normal, the accompanying photo notwithstanding.

The music had to carry the menace and although Puccini does that very well, the character through the performer should be contributing to that. Instead the music did all the heavy lifting. I would suggest a few sneers and convulsive hand motions would assist the audience’s understanding of Scarpia. Catana has a powerful and clear voice but seemed to crack at one point. He quickly passed over that and such was not heard again. It’s a pity that there aren’t many positive and friendly baritone roles. If there were, he’d be perfect.

The two suporting roles of Spoletto as sung by Chen Yong and Il Sagratano by Sammy Chien Sum-ming were performed spot on and I look forward to seeing them in larger roles soon.

Signore Castiglione is to be congratulated for giving us a thoughtful and traditional production without the insulting staging so common these days. Could it have been better? Only if it had moved closer to contemporary issues that are fraught with political overtones that resonate with the issues in the opera. That would mean shining a light on contemporary society and exposing and condemning torture, execution and the use of power for personal as well as political gain. Doing so would expose the director and any company daring to put on such a production to the very evils depicted. Surely the highest aspiration of a true artist.

Catana – Verdi’s Nabucco

China’s Three Tenors – 中国三大男高音 – First up is Wei Song, then Dai Yuqiang, then Warren Mok – a Chinese song

Hui He sings Leonara’s aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il Trovatore

***

Reviews

This time, two relatively short reviews. Date of both reviews – October 16, 2015. Lots of concerts coming to Hong Kong soon.

1. A National Day Celebration with the Hong Kong Phil, Rachel Jiemen

Conductor

Conductor

Zhang, conductor, Louise Kwong, soprano and Niu Niu, piano – Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8:00 PM September 25, 2015

Programme

Nie Er (National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China)
Tchaikovsky Mazeppa: Cossack Dance
Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades: Lisa’s Aria

Folk Song Si Lian (Arr. Lo Hou-man)
Zheng Quufeng  Four Seasons of our Country: Pamir How Lovely is My Hometown
Zhu Jian-er A wonder of Naxi

Intermission

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

It was a free ticket, so you take what you get. In this case, upstairs in the balcony on the left, when the center and downstairs were very empty but that was just how it was. Better to be on the inside anywhere than on the outside.

The highlights were Louise Kwong with her bright and clear voice, the 2nd movement of the concerto and Niu Niu’s encore. I’d never had to ask before: what happens when you get too tall for the piano and

Niu Niu

Niu Niu

your legs can’t fit under it? Do you sit back farther and hope your arms are long enough or raise the piano, and there are no doubt some lifts, but what about the pedals? I’d guess Niu Niu’s thinking about that almost every day. He’s still in his teens and is a very lanky guy. What if Yau Ming played the piano? Not that Niu Niu is anywhere near that tall but still. So has he stopped growing yet?

He definitely seemed much more at home in the slow and tender portions of this program which goes against stereotypes of the males being the power hitters. He chose an encore, that I didn’t recognize, but which allowed him to express that sensitivity and lyrical lines.

Nothing stood out for me in the conducting, neither good nor bad which is always good because the conductor is keeping it in the range most audiences would be comfortable with. Ms. Zhang is also young and certainly has the potential to develop into a conductor who is willing to take a more personal and idiocyncratic approach.

Louise Kwong

Louise Kwong

Louise sang well and has a pleasant voice. She gave the audience, and perhaps the orchestra too, a chance to learn that Tchaikovsky wrote something besides instrumental music. Once, a number of years ago, one member of our orchestra actually said on stage that nobody knew that Tchaikovsky had written other kinds of music so, now he knows that we know. Her Russian diction was impressive to me, a non-Russian and I would be interested in hearing her again.

Zhu Jian-er’s A wonder of Naxi seemed to have little that anyone could relate to, either in their own lives or to Naxi culture, if they had knowledge of it. This work was very unlike Tan Dun’s Secret Songs of Women honoring a different ethnic group and which was revelatory rather than obscurant. The Wonder of Naxi, makes it clear just how unique and special Tan Dun is. For example, the programme discussed aspects of the Naxi, including “Water dropping in brass basin” but there was no brass basin or water dropping on stage which was part of the orchestration in Tan’s work

*

2. Hagen Quartet, October 6, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall 8:00 PM

Lukas Hagen, violinHagen Quartet20151006_214726
Ranier Schmidt, violin
Veronika Hagen, viola
Clemens Hagen, cello
Jörg Widmann, clarinet

Programme
Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581

Intermission

Beethoven String Quartet No. 14, in c# minor, Op. 131

Both of these works were composed within the last year or two of these composers’ lives and are reflective of changes that were affecting them both. Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was at a mature age while Mozart died young at 35 (1756 – 1791). Neither of these are works of thoughtless youth.

Although, as made it clear in previous posts, I generally don’t much like Mozart, there are exceptions and among the exceptions, this clarinet quintet is certainly at the top. It’s not simply my favorite Mozart work, it begins to approach the outskirts of my favorite classical works, by anybody. It has beauty, sincerity, solemnity, expectation, joyous outbursts and resolve. Plus it has the unique voice of the clarinet. Brahms has a chamber work with clarinet that I also love. Despite these two being so fabulous, clarinet isn’t my favorite instrument but something magical happens in this quintet and when played, as it was here, to perfection, it is hard to think of any other instrument that could have carried this work and conveyed within its voice the emotions that the clarinet does.

Mr. Widmann is to be congratulated for giving us a most memorable performance. His tone was both beautiful and pitch perfect, steady throughout from the softest pianissimo to fortes, his breath control was unfaltering and there wasn’t the slightest hint of shrillness or reediness in the entire performance. If everyone played like he did, I might have learned to enjoy the clarinet long ago. Unfortunately, they don’t and I didn’t.

Although we have wonderful musicians who come together to play chamber music only occasionally and for a short time, there also are a number of quartets that have played together for years while developing a sort of second sense about what teach other are doing and thinking and feeling. Three of the four members of this quartet are from the Hagen family and that unique kinship seems to allow them to deliver a sound and unison that seems even more closely intertwined and resonant than many other quartets. This was a remarkable evening in the performance as well as the repertoire they presented.

They chose well. Certainly there were some in the audience who were unfamiliar with Beethoven’s late quartets. The opportunities to hear these quartets in live performance are few This particular piece is demanding on players and audience alike and doesn’t offer easy melodies and harmonies for the audience to follow.

The Hagen Quartet played it with great intensity, precision and passion. I can’t think of a better introduction, or way to return to an old friend, than to hear it played by the Hagen Quartet. What a treasure they are!

Allegretto with a slightly different configuration of the Hagen Quartet and a different clarinetist:

Widmann and Mozart – Christian Tetzlaff, Alexander Lonquich & Jörg Widmann — Mozart: “Kegelstatt” Trio, K. 498. Not the quintet but for those not Mozart challenged it’s probably pretty nice and you get an idea of Widmann’s excellence in playing.
:

***

Sara baras fringe

Review, October 9, 2015

BalletFlamenco Sara Baras: Voices, Suite Flamenca, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, September 26, 2015, 8:00 PM.

When it comes to Flamenco, Hong Kong has had its fair share, and there’s no such thing as too much or more than a fair share when it comes to flamenco. I love this art form and this is the second fabulous presentation this year that I have attended. I wrote a review of Viva Flamenca, the one earlier in the year, but ne
ver posted due to the mad rush of the last days of February when the Arts Festival started. (Speaking of which, next year’s Arts Festival tickets are already on scale (https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/) and I got mine in the first hour of the advanced sales. Cross your fingers nothing goes wrong with the processing thereof.

Numerous other flamenco artists have impressed me but no one is like Sara Baras and her company that performed this night. She gave us everything you expect and want from flamenco at the highest level of craftsmanship. We have had great performances here, for example in 2005 the Bejart Ballet had flamenco as one of its dance presentations and not too long after, the National Dance Troupe of Spain was here and they, of course, included flamenco along with dances from other regions of Iberia. They were great, fine but Sara Baras just blew me away.

Flamenco, by the way means “Flemish” in case you didn’t know. Hard to fathom the thinking that connected this style with Belgium but that’s what the books say. I learned some years ago how to appreciate this art form by watching Carlos Saura’s film, Carmen which takes the classic story of jealously and brutality and places it in a Spanish dance academy. The film made the artistry, technique and discipline required very clear.

The lower body, especially the feet, go absolutely crazy while the head and shoulders are as motionless as someone patiently waiting. In other words, a perfect metaphor for the Western mind-body split. The mind is represented by the head which is unaware, oblivious or perhaps just unwilling to acknowledge what the body and the emotions are actually doing. I first got this metaphor from the Viva Flamenca review I didn’t post so that may make me guilty of ‘self-plagarization’ but I am willing to absolve myself because it’s still true and I can’t think of any better way to express this idea.

She was paired splendidly with José Serrano who was almost a match for her step for step, stride by stride and click to click. Ms Baras was able to do all the technically difficult moves with the utmost skill. She did everything I’d seen before and much I had not. Her mastery of control was far beyond what I had imagined possible in this kind of dance genre. Not only was she able to move with great rapidity yet remain fluid and graceful while maintaining a calm and steady head and shoulders, she was able to Sara baras group 1eliminate all the sounds little by little until there was only a single click which got slower and slower and slower. Such command of rhythm and control. I could imagine her pairing up with a Karnatic dancer and Indian musical intruments. The entire troup added to the thrill as the singers made sure to out do the others and the same was true for the dancers.

In the world of flamenco, there’s no one I’d rather see than Sara Baras. Come back – soon!

See her for yourself – “El Albacín” from Ibéria by Caros Saura

And Sara Baras with José Serrano in another scene from the same film – “Asturias” which is danced to the famous guitar piece of the same name.

Something new has entered my life and the last two reviews and now this one have been written while I’ve been listening to some sounds very far from the reviews’ subjects. I never got into whales’ songs but these days I find myself watching live feeds from several South African watering holes with the sounds of the birds, insects, frogs and hippos. Hearing them gruntinf and splashing around is a delight. I’m planning a trip next year and I found this lodge where I want to stay. Give it a listen and occasional look, if you can. I find it hard to stop watching at: http://arathusa.co.za/ You may have to refresh from time to time. And then there is http://www.africam.com/wildlife/

***

Review, October 2, 2015

Dr. William Mong 5th Anniversary Memorial Charity Concert featuring violinist, Huang Mengla Xue Yongjia, pianist and Chen Sa pianist. Tuesday, September 22, HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8:00 PM.

Programme (First half was performed by Mengla and Xue Yongjia)
Beethoven Violin Sonata in F, “Spring”
Sarasate Zigeunerweisen
Ravel Tzigane
Intermission
Liszt Piano Sonata in b-minor (Performed by Chen Sa)

After short introductory remarks by a spokeswoman for the charity, the concert began with the Beethoven sonata. According to the programme brochure, Huang Mengla was the 2002 First Prize winner at the prestigious Paganini International Violin Competition in Italy. Xue Yingjia was first prize winneYingjiar at the Scriabin Competition in Paris in 2004. These artists have abundant talent and it should prove very interesting to watch them as they mature in years and depth of repertoire.

The two young men were closely attuned to each other and they gave us an intelligent and well articulated interpretation that captured the lighthearted aspects of the Beethoven sonata. This opening work made for an interesting contrast to the two that Menglafollowed with their gypsy fireworks of virtuosity, rapid bowing, lightning fingering, fast pizzicato and general showmanship.

Mengla gave an encore but he didn’t announce what it was although it was dsitinctive given the long passages that were played pizzicato (plucked) near the end. Both of these young artists show a great deal of potential and I look forward to seeing them perform again.

Unfortunately, a soft but persistent electronic hum was audible throughout the concert and this is something I have never heard in this venue before. I can only think that it was due to the microphone that was used both at the start of the program and before the second half. Perhaps it was not switched off. It was very annoying but fortunately it wasn’t loud so I doubt many others were aware of it but I’m the one who thought the ‘Princess and the Pea’ was a true story and it seems that applies to aural as well as other physical dimensions.

Chen saChen Sa was back looking like her old self, having opted for a long dress with a back and not strapless or anything. But frankly, she could have been wearing a housecoat and shower cap and it would have shimmered. Her Liszt was a revelation of nuance and drama, crashing chords and serious menace rumbling from the left hand while the right toyed with gentle melodic phrasings. I will definitely be listening to this Liszt sonata again and again.

At the end of the concert, Chen came out with the microphone and said that she wouldn’t play an encore as she believed that there shouldn’t be anything after the Liszt and that she hoped we would keep this music undisturbed as we left that evening. I think that was an excellent suggestion and although an encore is always something to look forward to, this work still had work to do on our psyches.

Mengla playing Sarasate’s Caramen Fantasy (If possible, he looks even younger now than in this video from 6 years ago)

Chen Sa playing Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody from 8 years ago:

A short introduction and interview:

***

Review, September 25, 2015

Ning Feng and the Southbank Sinfonia, Simon Over, conductor, Ning Feng violin, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, September 21, 8:00 pm.

Programme
Mozart Overture from Le nozze di Figaro
Beethoven Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G major
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e minor
Intermission
Sally Beamish  Reckless
Beethoven
Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major
Symphony No. 7 in A major

Nfeng

Ning Feng

Ning Feng gave a concert in Hong Kong a few years ago when I had never heard of him. The first indication that something was up, was that there were almost no tickets left. I ended up behind the stage. At that point I had no idea what I was in store for but it didn’t take long to figure out that this guy was phenomenal. From then on, I go to see him whenever he plays here and happily to say, he has played here quite a few times in recital, in concertos and performing in chamber music groupings.

Tonight not only did he play the concerto but also the two Beethoven Romances, both of which were new to me, and what a fabulous introduction to these works. Given that they are relatively short works, they must be difficult to schedule as neither one alone would be sufficient for a first-class violinist in concert nor would both played in succession be an acceptable substitute for a violin concerto. The solution that was presented here was brilliant but I can imagine that not every violinist has the stamina and wherewith all to pull off three such demanding pieces in a single night. Add to that, Ning’s encore after the concerto of the Paganini transcription of “God Save the Queen” and you had one incredible fireworks of a violin extravaganza.

Simon Over

The orchestra was excellent and all associated with the evening should be congratulated for giving us such a remarkable performance. Simon introduced the evening with a few remarks about the purpose of this London-based orchestra in nurturing young performers. All of the players looked to be in their early 20s. This was their first trip to Asia. Sponsors were welcomed to enable them to visit this area again (www.southbanksinfonia.co.uk)

I guess there are only so many fundraising remarks that are allowed and these tonight were given over to Over. This was one of the first times in recent concerts that Andrea Fessler, Executive Director of Premiere Performances didn’t take the opening remarks herself to explain their non-profit status, to thank their sponsors and to encourage the filling out of the audience survey. I filled mine out but couldn’t find it at the appropriate time. I’ve done better in the past and I’ll try to do better next time.

Sally Beamish’s Reckless didn’t especially impress me not when we have the likes of Tan Dun. Her piece made me think back towards Walter Piston rather than forward towards the new and fresh. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate had it been in the company of more modern composers. It surely didn’t go down well with Beethoven or Mendelssohn both of whom blend lyricism with melodic phrasings, harmonies with passionate rhythms.

The evening opened with Mozart. I’d sit through a whole lot of Mozart to hear Ning Feng. Mozart’s better known opera overtures are tolerable and as they are also familiar, I find I don’t much mind them. I can listen or turn them out quite readily and before long it was Beethoven time!

The first Fantasy (AKA Romance) was an absolute joy for fans of double-stops as there are extended passages filled with double stops, which are, for those who might not be familiar, when the violin bow plays two different notes on two different strings simultaneously. I say two but there were times when it sounded like even more than two. His was the clearest and most beautiful double stops I can remember hearing.

I hope you can see Ning Feng live in concert in the near future. I can’t wait for my next chance.

There didn’t seem to be any videos of Ning Feng performing this work but here is one by Renaud Capuçon, violin and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Masur

Ning Feng “God Save the Queen” Paganini

Grand Caprice on Schubert’s Erlkonig with HK Phil 2012

***

Review, September 18, 2015

For sure this is a recent photo of Friere, unlike many others where the photo is from 40 years ago.

For sure this time the programme presented a recent photo unlike many others times where a photo would appear to have been taken 40 years previously.

Nelson Freire Piano Recital, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, September 8, 2015, 8:00 PM.

Programme
Mozart Piano Sonata 11 in A, K. 331
Beethoven Piano Sonata 32 in c-minor, Op. 111

Intermission

Prokofiev Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (excerpts)
Granados Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor (From Goyescas)
Chopin Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60
Mazurka in a-minor, Op. 17, No. 4
Mazurka in C, Op. 56, No. 2
Ballade No.4 in f-minor, Op. 52

The woman sitting next to me asked if this was the musical highlight of the year and we were only at the intermission. Come on! It was just three days since Tan Dun’s brilliant season opener for the HK Phil. How could I say ‘yes’? But she did have a point: the Beethoven sonata was as magnificent as I have ever heard it. There was more than technical brilliance on display, although there was plenty of that, and it was more than finding and exploring unique phrasings. Freire’s introduction to the work was so idiosyncratic that for a moment I wondered if he had switched to another work than the one listed until he reached the signature motif. His playing was exquisite.

His was a truly incandescent interpretation with great fluidity and grace. He made me feel that this sonata was almost like a living creature coming to life at his fingertips. That doesn’t happen very often.

He also avoided the numerous pitfalls that an interpreter can fall into. With Freire nothing was over done. The adagio wasn’t slowed down to where the melodic threads disappeared in the vast silences that some pianists believe reside there. Neither was the allegro portion wildly frenetic and strident.

There is a portion of this sonata that has rhythms that are reminiscent of later developments in music and some have said this sounds like a precursor of jazz and ragtime. Certainly I can imagine a pianist, such as Scott Joplin, in the 1920s hearing or playing this sonata and deciding that there was something worth developing that would suit the times. The same could be true of the early stride pianists who would seem to have been equally taken with these almost modern rhythms. But then, this may be a case of independent convergence, in this case musical and rhythmic ones rather than evolutionary.

There was much in this sonata that seemed a tribute to Bach and his counterpoint, toccatas and fugues. The piano sounded at times like an organ and I could hear the various pipes and the vast keyboards and pedals in action. It was almost as if we were listening to the Bach organ in St. Thomas Church. Bravo!

The programme began with Mozart’s 11th sonata. I’ve made it clear, in other reviews, that Mozart and I go way back and generally don’t mix well; however, this particular sonata is one of my earliest memories as a child listening to my mother playing it with great frequency. It has always held a special place in my life that is more than simply a musical connection. So this is one of the exceptions to my general avoidance reaction to Mozart. As Freire played it, I could almost for a moment believe I was listening to those long ago days. My mother was a trained pianist and had been playing since early childhood. I doubt she played at Friere’s level but as a child, I had no objective standard and for me, there was no better player.

Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives was new to me and I am grateful to Maestro Freire for introducing me to this lovely work and I urge others to get to know this as well. He didn’t tell us which excerpts he would be playing so I had to listen to them all on Youtube. Thanks!

Here’s Prokofiev playing his own composition:

The Granados was charming and I wished for more. I realized immediately this had to have been the inspiration for the opening bars of that famous song from Mexico, Besame Mucho, as elements of the opening bars can be clearly heard in the song. A little research confirmed that the young girl, Consuelo Velázquez, who wrote it at age 15, was inspired by this work. Youtube shows an older Velázquez on a TV show performing her song and she is clearly more rooted in the piano as an instrument than as a singer:

Here’s the original version sung by Velázquez:

Granados himself on Youtube playing this piece:

Freire is a very serious Chopin interpreter. His playing of the Barcarolle was nothing short of brilliant and the finest I have heard. Many pianists struggle and fail to convey that sense of water and motion that is indicative of a barcarolle. Freire sounded like water flowing over water. I could feel a continual fluid motion of this small vessel amid flowing and sensuous ripples and occasionally its encounter with a cataract or two.

There’s an entire one hour and thirty-six minute documentary of Freire on Youtube as well as many others of him playing, including this one of the Barcarolle in which you too can experience this special interpreter:

Highlight of the year? Nelson Freire is certainly a strong contender.

***

Review, September 11, 2015

Season’s Opening: Tan Dun’s Nu Shu, HK Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor Tan Dun, metal percussionist, Zhang Xinru, violin soloist, Zeyu Victor Li, and harpist, Elizabeth Hainen

Tan Dun! Is there a more creative, thoughtful and sensitive composer alive? If so, bring it on!TanD This night Tan Dun did it all. He was composer, filmmaker and conductor for the opening night of the HK Phil’s 42nd season.

The evening began with Tan’s Symphonic Poem on Three Notes, written in 2012 especially for Placido Domingo’s 70 birthday. Tan based the work on the similarity of the sound of the name Placido to the three notes of the solfeggi, la, ti and do, here listed as ‘la,’ ‘si’ and ‘do’ or ABC on the musical scale. Playing with letters as initials for signatures and lovers, for tributes and cryptic messages has a long tradition in the world of music as there are numerous examples that abound from Josquin des Prez to Bach, to Schumann to more modern examples of Elgar and Shostakovich.

This symphonic piece featured Zhang Xinru, a talented Chinese metal percussionist whose array of instruments were up front and center. She played with a variety of instruments that included what looked like vibraphone, chimes, xylophone and shiny wide-rimmed wheels. On occasion, she used something like a smallish sledge hammer to strike the appropriate instruments. Each strike added a unique layer of vibrating and penetrating sounds.

Additional unusual instruments were the bowls at the left and right back of the stage, into which hands of other percussionists, dipped and dropped water to accompany the orchestra.

This piece was interesting to listen to even if I didn’t discern anything of my own images and impressions of Placido Domingo in its melodic lines, harmonies, instrumentation or rhythms. It was after all a tribute and not a portrait.

The orchestra was in fine form for this their season’s opener. Most of the faces were familiar with a few new ones. Several familiar musicians were seated in new locations. The strings have always been impressive as have the percussionists but this first concert showcased the increasing confidence and abilities of the brass and wind sections who played faultlessly and perhaps equally important, they played with ease. The HK Phil holds great promise for the coming season.

Between the two new pieces by Tan Dun on the program, we had a very traditional and well-loved work, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in e minor, op. 64, played by the young Chinese violinist, Zeyu Victor Li.

It’s hard not make comparisons with such a familiar piece, especially when the performance level differs from previous experiences. Certainly it is important to note that Victor is only 19 years old and therefore may be forgiven for any bouts of nervousness that might have interfered with coming out of the blocks, so to speak, on fire. The opening notes of the violin in this concerto deserve to be not only clearly articulated but at a stirring volume. The beginning was underwhelming from where I sat. It didn’t take long, however, for him to pick up the slack and produce clean and full-throated tones with expert technique. With the passing of time, Li will no doubt develop his talents to find his own way to more fully express those deeper sensibilities that exist in the music, including passion, sorrow and at times anguish.

Tan Dun, in contrast was much more at home with this piece but then he is not 19 nor does he exhibit the slightest case of nerves or unfamiliarity with the stage, the work or his instrument, in this case, the orchestra. This work provided a touchstone of tradition in the evening’s program which must surely have been a welcome respite for some of the audience who may be less comfortable with the challenges that Tan Dun presents with his own compositions. That the house was not full, is a testament to the resistance that many have to modern music.

The highlight of the evening was the second half performance, Nu Shu, The Secret Songs of Women,  a major work that exceeded in length the entire first half. This work challenged not only musical traditions but societal, gender-based concepts and restrictions as well. Tan has gathered images on film and songs from a secret language called Nu Shu, from the village of the same name, that was passed down in oral and written form and is unique to this area of Hunan, the province in which Tan Dun was born.

It was an honor and privilege to witness this extraordinary effort at teaching traditions and preserving relations with dignity and love. The effort on the part of the women and that of Tan Dun has resulted in a unique opportunity to participate in another world. Tan suggests that the songs represent the past, the orchestra the future and the harp is a link between them.

The very nature and existence ofScreen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.10.30 PM (1) this language was a direct challenge to the centuries old tradition where upon marriage, a bride is considered no longer a part of her birth family and communication between the bride and her birth family is prohibited. The women of Nu Shu created this language which was used to keep a two-way link with mothers, grandmothers, sisters <-> daughters, granddaughters and no doubt beyond to members of their extended family. (“Sister” in the Chinese language and customs encompasses not only blood siblings but cousins as well.)

The names of the songs are very revealing of the nature of this language and the heartbreaking lives of these women who found a creative and secret way to transcend this culturally forced alienation.

1. Secret Fan (Writing was put on fans and passed between women.)
2. Mother’s Song
3. Dressing for the Wedding
4. Cry-Singing for Marriage
5. Nu Shu Village
6. Longing for Her Sister
7. A Road without End
8. Forever Sisters
9. Daughter’s River
10. Grandma’s Echo
11. The Book of Tears
12. Soul Bridge
13. Living in the Dream

These last remaining custodians of this disappearing language as they expressed and passed down their secret language were very touching and there is no doubting the heartfelt connection between the generations that Tan’s music and visual images made evident.

The filmic images were projected onto three screens, a larger one at the center back of the orchestra and two smaller ones in front on either side of the stage. The screens were on vertical poles and looked like hanging banners or scrolls with decorative designs above and below the screen. The images shown were rarely the same between the three. Occasionally the side-screen images did coincide but more often the three showed elements of the same scene but were revealed in a different timing, or else portions of the same scene were divided between all three. The screens would sometimes move with the airflow in the hall and underscored the ephemeral nature of the images, the language, the music and ultimately, life itself.

There were many poignant scenes that were especially memorable and touching. The songs of the grandmother teaching her granddaughter, those of the river of tears, and that of the tear-filled scarf of the wedding (song #4) were very powerful reminders of the gender-based cruelty that still remains in our societies, and not just in rural places and not just in China.

This work was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra who debuted it in 2013 with harpist, Elizabeth Hainan. We were fortunate in the extreme to have had not only the composer as conductor but the original harpist as well in performance.

Is there a more creative, thoughtful and sensitive composer alive? Did I say that already?

A short film by Tan Dun introducing this work and featuring Elizabeth Hainen, harpist who also performed in this evening’s performance.

Another film about Nu Shu with Tan Dun discussing this work.

***

Review, September 6, 2015

Steinway Artist Robin ZZebaida2ebaida Performing Russian Masterworks, Presented by CNConcerts – Shatin Town Hall, Cultural Activities Hall, 7:30 PM, August 2, 2015

Programme
Scriabin
Sonata No, 4 in F# Major, Op 30—1. Andante, 2. Prestissimo volando
        Two Poems, Op 32  1. Andante Cantabile, 2. Allegro, conn eleganza, con fiducia
        Sonata No. 5, Op 53
        Vers la flamme, Op 72
        Fantasie in b minor, Op 28

Interval

Rachmaninov
13 Preludes, Op 32
         Allegro vivace in C major, No. 1
         Moderato in F major, No. 7
         Moderato in G major, No. 5
         Lento in b minor, No. 10
         Allegro in g# minor, No. 12

    Three Pieces:
          Barcarolle, Op 10, No. 3
          Humouresque, Op 10, No. 5
          Elegie, Op 3, No. 1

      10 Preludes Op 23
          Largo in F# minor, No. 1
         Largo in G♭ major, No. 10
          Maestoso in B♭ major, No. 1

There are just way too many ways to find out about a concert in Hong Kong and it’s easy to miss a notice until it’s too late. I only happened to see a poster for this performance as I was walking by some posters for concerts. I stopped and looked at them and when I saw the programme for this one, with the Scriabin, a composer that Wong Yuja had just performed, I thought it would be a great opportunity to hear more of this infrequently played repertoire with the even rarer chance to listen to it again so soon after having heard it before.

Robin Zebaida was delightful. He gave a very informative and entertaining concert in which not only did he play on the piano, he told us more about the composers and even read some poems of Scriabin’s that related to the music he played. This is aZebaida1 refreshing change from the more formal, and strictly music, format most concerts follow.
His manner is very straightforward without gimmicks or histrionics. He has a serious approach when playing that is in contrast to his spoken presentation and he has a friendly demeanor which carried over to after the concert where he was very approachable.

I found little common ground between his interpretations and those of Ms Wong and anyway, they say comparisons are odious and there’s no value in being odious. So I will not make any comparisons between her and him. What I will say, however, is that I felt a marked difference between his playing of Scriabin and that of Rachmaninov. I have no doubt that Zebaida is keenly interested and intrigued by Scriabin. He has studied Scriabin and knows a great deal about his work, and his writings and his life.My impression was that Zebaida very much wanted us, and himself, to ‘get’ Scriabin on an intellectual level. I don’t have the vocabulary or even the insight to tell you what exactly the difference was but on a visceral level, I didn’t feel that Zebaida felt the Scriabin works in the same way he clearly felt Rachmaninov’s.

Please don’t think for a moment that this means Zebaida did a poor job or failed to give an enjoyable performance of Scriabin’s works but, as is generally true, performers have composers that they feel closer and more akin to than others but they aren’t forced to limit their talents to only those with whom they are most comfortable. It may be that when playing those composers that present the greatest challenges, the performing artist has the greatest potential for growth. If so, the conflict of interest between the performer and the audience couldn’t be greater. And just think if you had to add to that, a living composer …. But, that’s not an issue here.

The Rachmaninov was especially moving and I felt he underlaid beneath the notes a passionate connection that he then extended throughout the entire work. Zebaida has a holistic approach to his playing that was very apparent. The overall work was always in mind and the parts, the phrases and inventive but short-lived melodic bursts, never seemed distracting and extraneous but were an integral part of the work. As a listener I like that but I think it’s easier to write about such issues when they’re missing.

I’m lucky that Hong Kong has and brings in so many artists who are great that I rarely get the chance to rip into anyone. I started this blog at the end of February 2015, at the start of the Arts Festival and it’s already August, as I am writing this review and, depending whether I decide to skip any, it will be close to 40 live performance in five months and there really aren’t any negative live performance reviews except perhaps one. Could I even write a negative review now? Because why would it be worth my trouble to write about a poor performance and if I did write it, why would I want it on my blog? Probably, I’ll find the answers to these questions once the opportunity presents itself. Until then, I want to thank the classical music promoters in Hong Kong for giving us such continually high quality choices of great artists and excellent performances.

Zebaida playing Schumann from an earlier Hong Kong recital:

And here he plays Scriabin from a recital in a church in London, 29th November 2015 – (Alert – this is one piano that needs some tuning.)

***

Review, August 28, 2015

The National Youth Orchestra of the USA – Charles, Dutoit, conductor. Yundi Li, piano, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Sunday, July 26, 2015, 4 PM

Programme
Tan Dun         Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds
Beethoven     Piano Concerto No. 5, in E-flat major, Op. 75
“Intermission”
Berlioz    Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

What an amazing creative genius Tan Dun is. In his Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, he has incorporated the cell phone as a musical instrument in a brilliantly controlled way to make this piece one of the most entertaining, playful, interesting and engaging contemporary work youtan dun will ever hear. This is a trailblazing work and, given the wonderful talents that exist, this will be just the start but it might be Tan Dun himself who takes this to the next step, whatever that might be. Could there be a cellphonic orchestra in our futures?

It was wonderful for the Hong Kong audience to have this opportunity to hear this work, newly commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the National Youth Orchestra, and doubly fortunate to have Tan Dun in the audience with us. He must surely have been pleased with the results. You can hear his comments about this piece in the video at the end.

The Passacaglia interweaves the sounds of various birdcalls which were downloaded onto cell phones, beforehand. These phones belonged to the orchestra members and those of the audience who were aware and prepared themselves for this collaboration. The different bird calls, mixed with the orchestral sounds, were modern, melodic and rhythmic. The atonal, harsh, dissonant 12-tone world is left far in the dust and this work points the way towards what audiences have been craving for many decades: something new, energizing, compelling and delightful with elements of melody that can be remembered and hummed after the performance has concluded. Although the program said it was about 5 minutes long, the version we got was easily 15 minutes with never a tedious or off-putting moment showing its capacity for spontaneity and improvisation. Bravo!!

Once again, Hong Kong was a NSO audience, that’s – no standing ovation. It is almost embarrassing to see this resistance to giving a well-deserved standing O. I could have stood myself and felt it was the right thing to do but I didn’t. My rationalization for this act of cowardice is I don’t think a single person standing up, or even a scattered handful is especially meaningful. A standing ovation is a kind of public acclaim, an audience-wide stamp of approval and not a personal statement. And that public aspect is what doesn’t happen in Hong Kong.

Following Tan Dun’s work, we had the famous Beethoven Emperor Concerto, which is the first concerto that I can actually remember seeing long ago. I am sure I had seen others before this but they have disappeared. This one was at the San Francisco War Memorial Concert Hall, I think that’s what it was/is called, but for sure I remember the soloist; it was Rudolph Serkin and he was simply brilliant. I would have been even more impressed with it had we had had better seats. But sitting upstairs in the balcony where the ceiling swooped down in front of us, we seemed to be peering at the stage through a small opening between the ceiling and the front of the balcony with greatly diminished sound. Although I loved the piece and the pianist, I so not liked those seats that I am sure now to inquire about such overhangs.

20150726_Yundi (1)

Yundi Li in front wearing black and Charles Dutiot in the white jacket, coming out for a curtain call

Pianist Yundi Li or Li Yundi, as he is known here, is very popular in Hong Kong, coming as he does from the neighboring city of Shezhen, just across the border in Mainland China. I have seen him a few times previously but the last time I decided I was not going to waste my time seeing him again. For whatever reason, that time, he had given the most disinterested, detached and lackluster performance of Tchaikovsky I had ever heard. I had to think twice before I decided I’d take a chance and see both him and the NYO and I am so glad I did.

Yundi Li seems to have gotten past or over whatever was going on with him at that prior concert and he gave an exciting and highly focused performance of the Beethoven. Li, of course, won the first prize at the Chopin Competition in 2000, the first such first prize given out in a decade. Even at his best, though, he hasn’t captured my heart and it has nothing to do with playing the notes. He certainly doesn’t play poorly or make lots of mistakes. He is definitely musical and his playing is generally impeccable and enjoyable but for me something is lacking. I suspect there’s a gap between his level of passion towards the instrument or the piece and mine.

After the intermission, this group of youngsters, who, if you didn’t look at them, you could not believe this orchestra wasn’t full of seasoned musical veterans, took on the challenging Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This piece is where Berlioz tried to exorcise his obsession with the actress Harriet Simpson. It contains multiple emotional depths and depth charges that can cause problems for any conductor and orchestra. The last concert I attended of this symphony was with the HK Philharmonic, conducted by Perry So, assistant conductor under Edo de Waart a few years ago. This piece certainly got the better of Perry and I been reluctant to see it again. This performance, however, was an accomplished and spirited presentation. There was sure guidance from Maestro Dutoit who led this passionate and talented youth orchestra through all the challenges in a brilliant performance.

Maestro Dutoit and orchestra at concert finale

Maestro Dutoit and orchestra at concert finale

If you are lucky enough to have a chance to see this group of talented and inspiring musicians, go. You will not be disappointed.

Watch the Youth Orchestra rehearsing the Passacaglia which includes commentary by Tan Dun:

***

Review, August 21, 2015Ravel and Pag4

Shatin Philharmonic Orchestra / Hong Kong North Philharmonic Orchestra, Tam Hon Man, Conductor/Music Director, Colleen Lee, piano, Patrick Tam, violin – 8:00 PM, July 18, 2015, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Programme
Schubert   –  Unfinished Symphony #8

Ponchielli   – ‘Dance of the Hours’ from La Gioconda

Ravel:          – Piano Concerto in G
Interval
PaganiniViolin Concerto #1

With all the greats that come through Hong Kong, who’s the audience for the less than perfect? Going to see an amateur orchestra is something I have rarely done. After all, why would I, why would anyone? And yet, this jaded reaction could well be a mistake. Such is the compelling talent of Colleen Lee that I’d probably not wade through waist-high flood waters to hear her, but short of that level of inconvenience, I’m willing to trust her. And I’m happy to report, she didn’t let me down.

I wasn’t sure what to expect and I admit I didn’t immediately go out and buy a ticket when I saw the one and only poster that seemed to be out there but the second time I saw it, I couldn’t resist any longer. Obviously if she believed in the orchestra enough to play with them, they deserved a chance and for the most part, they did quite well. I thought they were best in the programme opener. The Schubert sounded passionate, moody but very in keeping with his spirit even if there were a few errors.

The French horns held their notes for an admirably long time without losing any of their tonal quality nor did the sound become strained. That’s always praiseworthy. I’d give you their names but the program gave that info only in Chinese, whereas the rest of the programme was ostensibly bi-lingual. Along with the horns, the rest of the wind section, the percussionists and the harpist were those that shone brightest.

The strings were something of a different story and a mixed bag, including a notable lack of sonority and mellowness in the sound. There was also a tendency towards intonation problems that, in the Ponchielli, added a level of dissonant tension it doesn’t usually have but which might actual have resulted in a more interesting performance. If I had a list of musical pieces that I could gladly live without for the rest of my life, this would be on it, although certainly not at the top. Much of the blame falls on Walt Disney’s Fantasia as I could not hear any of the music from that film for more than a dozen years without seeing those images. Whenever the ‘Dance of the Hours’ played, I saw dancing hippos until Alan Sherman mercifully? banished them to ‘Camp Granada.’ If you’ve never seen the movie or heard that song, you don’t know how lucky you are.

Ravel, on the other hand, doesn’t really need that added tension to be enjoyable and I found it preferable to concentrate on Coleen Lee’s playing and the positive elements of the orchestral support. As always, Lee is my kind of pianist. She’s not superhuman, like some I could name, or, well one anyway. She is simply someone whose love of the piano is unmistakable. She and the piano make music together. Most others seem to be playing music on the piano. I’m not sure this distinction makes sense to anyone else but to me it feels like a shift in focus and approach that I find meaningful. This is the first time I have heard Lee play this repertoire and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, finding interesting pathways through the arpeggios and trills. The lyrical nature of her playing shone through. The sparse audience was not as enthusiastic as it should have been but she graciously gave us an encore anyway. It was something I didn’t know and sounded like a cross between Eric Satie and Aaron Copeland. It was lovely, with open and airy sounding harmonies that were themselves draped within a pleasant output of melody.

After the interval, we had the PagaRavel and Pag5nini concerto. Paganini was well known as a violin virtuoso (and a guitarist too) and the expectations for some bowing and fingering magic were high. I don’t believe I had ever heard this concerto before and I could see why, at least based on how it was played this evening. The orchestral structure had absolutely no depth of feeling nor displayed any interesting thematic development. It was like what you do without a lot of ideas whilst killing time until the violin solo. It felt like a series of opera overtures strung together and going nowhere. Patrick Tam played well and I had no complaints about what I heard. Perhaps it would be interesting to see this by a different set of more mature players to see what might have been missing from this performance.

This orchestra is in need of some key players in the string sections. There is a definite deficiency there ranging from the no consistency of pitch to the lack of depth in orchestral sound. Thin is not what any conductor is striving for. Given the huge numbers of music students in Hong Kong, I urge an increased recruiting effort. I thought the conductor showed a real grasp of the music and I commend him for doing what he has with the talent remaining after the other, more well known, orchestras have gathered up the cream of the Hong Kong musical crop.

The orchestra should be proud of what they presented this evening and I have no doubt they will keep pushing themselves toward those high standards I am sure Tam Hon Man has set. I’m certainly not sorry I went and I would see this orchestra again. I doubt they would fail to meet my expectations.

One of the greatest conductors, Wilhelm Furtwängler, giving Schubert his inimitable, nuanced and dramatic stamp:

***

Review, August 14, 2015

PlenevRussian National Orchestra – Mikhail Pletnev, Music Director, Conductor and soloist. Vladislav Lavrik, Assistant Conductor, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Wednesday, June 24, 2015.

Programme
Mozart                   Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K.491
“Intermission”
Tchaikovsky        Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64

Already this year, we’ve seen the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet, the Borodin Quartet and now this great Russian symphony orchestra. Perhaps boycotts and sanctions mean we get more world-class, Russian musicians coming our way instead of going to Europe or the US; it’s a sacrifice we’ll just have to live with.

As those who have read an earlier review on this blog, that of Wang Yuja, Tryptich1,  may recall, I am Mozart-challenged and, for the most part, I just don’t get it. There is no denying that Pletnev is a brilliant pianist in total command of his instrument with an all-encompassing, musical approach as well. Unfortunately, that still left me, to quote Little Anthony “on the outside looking in.” This has been the case for most of my life so the exception just over a week ago when Wang Yuja helped me to appreciate Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 was especially welcome but, as I surmised then, the door she opened was exclusively hers and doesn’t budge on the next try.

Nevertheless, I was able to appreciate the skill and attention to musical detail of the pianist as well as begin to understand the skill and artistry of the composer even though it leaves me unaffected. But after the Mozart, this was a Russian orchestra after all, they played Tchaikovsky. What they did with that was worth sitting through any number of Mozart concertos. (Almost.)

RNOThere is so much pain and pathos running through this entire work that I was sure this symphony was the one commonly referred to as the “Pathetique.” It wasn’t and I fear that listening to this orchestra play the real “Pathetique” piece as passionately and intelligently as they did this one, would be unbearable. Tchaikovsky’s life contained great sufferings which he was able to mask only up to a point. As a composer he brought considerable aspects of this deep sorrow, anguish and passion to his listeners.

The orchestra had the string basses on the audience’s left-hand side and the cellos slightly to the center and to the right of the second violins. This presented a rich array and range of the lower registers. They were ever present. Russian basses have a sound that is powerful and riveting. It is unmistakable and inimitable. I have for many years known it through the voice but now I understand that it resides in the orchestra as well. I have heard many Tchaikovsky symphonies before but never in such an insightful interpretation. The music has deep, somber sonorities in which the basses are clearly interwoven with the other instruments while at times the bass  remains lurking in the substrata colouring the entire piece, a basement you definitely don’t want to visit alone.

The four movements flowed into a single whole. The variations of the final theme became more complex and turbulent. The orchestra was exhilarating and full of lush and warmth. This contained none of those crystalline brights that some orchestras are all about and that would have been totally out of keeping with the nature of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. No doubt is had been alright for the Mozart too, but then, I’m not the one to say.
The orchestra played an encore after the symphony as did Pletnev after the concerto. I don’t know what Pletnev played but it sounded like it was from the same period as Mozart and might have been but as I rather liked it, I have my doubts.

The orchestra’s encore was  by Aram Khachaturian, thanks to Irina, a Russian and fellow concert goer for letting me know. Oh! Pletnev played on a Kawai and not a Steinway?

There were no videos of the Russian National orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky so I have given you the finale by The Moscow City Symphony, Dmitri Jurowski, conductor.

Pletnev playing the Mozart concerto with a Schubert Impromptu as an encore:

Suddenly, in the finale of the symphony, I felt I could hear Freddie Mercury singing “We are the Champions.” Don’t tell me he didn’t listen to this work and get inspired.
Review, August 7, 2015

Triptych 3, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Wang Yu-ja, pianist, Jaap van Zweden, conductor – HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday, June 20, 8 pm

 Brahms        Piano Concerto No. 2, in B♭

Interval

Debussy    La Mer


Ravel        Bolero

It’s been my curse to let the better drive out the good in many aspects of life, including, especially including, music. It’s a curse because who can attain that level of perfection? And once attained, how  to maintain it? Recognizing the problem is not the same as finding a cure for it. I’m still working on that but I have been to enough live performances, at world-class standards, in a relatively short span of time, that I may be reaching a plateau where my inner craving for the very best has been sated (somewhat).

The past two reviews have brought a respite from that curse, both in being able to joyfully leave the peaks of the immortals, see last week’s review on Imogen Cooper, and in listening to music from very different cultures than what I am used to. It’s become clear to me how important it is to place our judgment of talent and skill in the proper context and at the appropriate human level so that the performance can be properly valued. It has been very tempting to say, “Well if I can’t go/do/eat/hear the best, I’ll just do without,” thereby impoverishing my own life through deprivation. The world of ordinary mortals and normal greatness has much to offer and I don’t want to be like that mythical character who having once tasted ambrosia, refused to eat mortal sustenance and starved to death. I am glad I now recognize how foolish that idea can be. But it might take a while.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t revel in the realm of the gods when we have the chance.
Last Saturday, Wang Yuja obliterated the orchestra. The following Saturday, she was back center stage for her third and final concert in this remarkable eight day period, as Artist in Residence with the HK Phil, during which she has hovered like an unseen gravitational force. Let’s hope this week I have some attention left to give to the orchestra, Maestro Van Zweden, and the second half of the programme which includes Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Bolero.

Although I hope there will be many other opportunities to attend a Wang Yuja concert, luckily there aren’t going to be any in the foreseeable future sparing me and all the other Hong Kong attendees from the musical equivalent of Icarus’ fate when he flew too close to the sun.

Wang Yuja ’s first two concerts, of her series of three, were revelatory and tonight was no exception. Brahms’ second piano concerto is far from my favorite concerto and nowhere near my favorite Brahms, meaning that once again, Ms Wang put up anticipatory obstacles and challenged my expectations. As in the previous two concerts, she completely confounded them all.

She demonstrates a subtlety of technique that is a precision tool for shaping dynamic phrasings that challenged every other version of this concerto that I have heard, whether live, audio recordings or on video. There were extended passages of exquisite pianissimos that were radiant and riveting. The music has tension and drama as well which was supported by the orchestra and piano in turns. I thought there was a fine balance between the two that belied the limited time they have been playing together. Perhaps the credit goes to Maestro Van Zweden, although Ms Wang lives in Hong Kong, she has paired with him in several important firsts with different orchestras, including in the Netherlands and London There is definitely some chemistry there. We are lucky that they found each other and that he is the HK Phil’s Music Director.

Resplendent in her shimmering mermaid-skin, (see June 13th review) Wang once again exhibited her flair for attaining perfection in an overarching concept rather than seeking short term goals of getting from note or phrase A to note or phrase B. This concerto is massive, 50 minutes, with immense structure and interconnections that aren’t always readily evident. Not being a musician, I can’t direct you to the particular measures that made me feel these concordances. (There’s also the possibility that I’ve just been bewitched.) But I really believe I have a much clearer concept of this work and this concerto is not something new to me. I’m willing to accept that the vision she conveyed is idiosyncratic to me and might not affect everyone else in the same way. However, I am also not alone. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “To listen to her in action is to re-examine whatever assumptions you may have had about how well the piano can actually be played,” which goes some ways in supporting my take on her.

This was the concluding concert of three programmes, on five of the past nine nights. I for one can forgive her for not playing an encore. Not so those latecomers who were hoping to at least catch one.

The audience was very well behaved, except for the man behind me who decided that getting something out of a crackly plastic bag was indispensable and far more important than listening to the music. He wasn’t even quick about it. On the other hand, coughs were almost non-existent and then only during the breaks between movements. Only once did a brochure hit the floor with a blast. Unlike most other concerts, this time the programmes were apparently more tightly clutched than usual.

I’ll end my discussion of Wang Yuja with a repeat of what I said before, “She’s the one.” By that I mean, and this is supposing we are able to save a viable habitat for our species on this earth and any semblance of civilization continues, she is the one that will be the reference point for pianistic brilliance a hundred years from now.

This time, I didn’t blank out the orchestra so I noticed they did a fine job throughout. The orchestra is developing a rich, sonorous sound with precision and clarity. After the break, the La Mer was well-conceived and thoughtfully executed. The shifting moods and troubled aspects of the sea were very evident and provided a welcome contrast to the massive Brahms concerto that had come before.

The shock was Bolero. I wasn’t expecting a new conception of this work that is so well known that it is almost hackneyed. I last had heard this work performed in the foyer of the Cultural Centre some years back when the musicians were strategically placed in different areas and throughout the four levels overlooking the foyer. It was a delightful and most intriguing presentation. That’s the only kind of innovation I had imagined could be brought to this too familiar piece but was I wrong. Maestro Van Zweden made Bolero into something fresh. His conception and the orchestra’s playing gave a new sense of dynamics and flexibility in phrasing and tonal shadings that made it seem exciting and new. The various integrations into the main theme were innovative and kept my interest as if hearing it for the first time, but with an overlay of familiarity. This is the kind of deja vu we all want. The orchestra certainly deserved the rousing applause the audience bestowed. This orchestra sounds like it belongs to Van Zweden in this his third year as musical director. No standing O, though.

Short of summoning Loge and igniting the auditorium, this second half programme was the perfect way to bid farewell to a god.

Here’s that thrilling and innovative Bolero in the Foyer, conducted by Johannes Wildner who along with the players look like they are so enjoying this.
You have your choice of much better sound with the hand-held camera technique but incomplete: (I can be seen for a couple of seconds starting at about 4:25)

or a complete but poorer sound quality. (Me at about 2: 20.)

 ***

  Review, July 31, 2015 (Out of sequence by couple of days )

Splendors of Gansu: Genesis and Spirit, Sunday, June 14, 2015, 5 pm. Sha Tin Town Hall Auditorium 

Programme – 13 different songs and dances from, apparently, Gansu.
Gansu; where the heck is Gansu? I went without doing my due diligence, not knowing where Gansu was and left still not knowing. Here’s a note to the LCSD, (Leisure and Cultural Services Department) a small map would be helpful when presenting ethnic performances from various locations. I’ll do better than they did and give you a map.

Gansu Province
Also, an online search gave the information that Gansu is “[s]ynonymous with the Silk Road.” http://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/gansu That information, too, would have been helpful.

All too infrequently, I see a notice, usually very low key, about an ethnic cultural performance that usually features a number of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH) artists and performance styles. This time there were thirteen ICH’s out of thirteen acts that included the term in their descriptions. Closer inspection reveals that only two “are on the first List of National Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.” The third is on the second such list. One is on a similar list at the Province level.” There are some that list smaller geographic locations as the source of their recognition, including Yongchang, Qingyang, Pingling, Duohuang and Gannan. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize them. For a limited amount of more information, here’s the link to the promotion.
http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/Programme/en/dance/program_855.html

Highlights: Several of the acts were of high quality and very colourful as well as entertaining. If the first song that was played is truly a traditional folk melody and rhythms, dating back millennia or at least centuries, and if there is ever a reconsideration of the banjo’s origins, then the instrument that opened tonight’s performance, the xianxiao 贤孝, is worth taking a hard look at. Given what is known and the wide spread usage of such instruments in many traditional societies worldwide, the prevailing consensus is that it is unlikely the xianxiao contributed to the banjo’s history. Still, there may be room for further study given the references on the internet to the California gold rush and San Francisco as a popular stop for minstrel shows. The population of Chinese in that era and area, with their musical instruments, perhaps ought to be looked at for what contribution they might have made to the American instrument and the music that itself became part of American Intangible Heritage. Here’s a sample of xianxiao:
http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/QGnEIWgS_Rs/ and more details about this instrument and style of performing which often featured blind artists:

http://tinyurl.com/oeu47vj (Tinyurl.com slimmed down this originally 175 character url to a reasonable size.)

This opening performer was really good but, regrettably, I can’t tell you who he was as the performers are listed “In no particular order.” Thanks!
From there we had a dance troupe with another familiar accoutrement of American culture: batons. This danced showed clearly that the batons of marching bands, now, were based on a military weapon, then. Some of the unison attack moves would make for an interesting cheer-leading routine. And the acts continued, one after the other until they came to the intermission which, according to the programme, the performance is “without intermission.” Got it.
The second half began with a dance called Baigeer which was described as “a religious dance featuring the Dharma Defenders, Dorje Legpa (Sandskrit ‘Vajrasadhu’).” The costumes (at the bottom of the programme) were awesome which seems appropriate for defenders and the movements were enjoyable if not appearing especially dazzling or overpowering. Everything from this province seems quite laid back. The auditorium was about a third filled but the few who were there seemed to have enjoyed it in a similar laid back fashion. The very best of the second half had to have been the Mongolian double-voiced throat singer and the suona player. Truly world-class by any standard, both the artists and their art form.  I think I could easily enjoy a full programme featuring such music exclusively.
The biggest objection and disappointment, I had to such a programme was the lack of context and the failure to connect the acts in any meaningful way. It was literally a showcase, and as such was similar to placing one glass-fronted cabinet, with unrelatead contents, next to another and marching the audience quickly past them and out the door. Almost everything was 3 -5 minutes long; nothing was longer than 7 except the closing dance that brought the performers out into the audience before finale back on stage.

The programme notes offered no in-depth analysis and no way to understand each of the separate pieces, neither within its own context nor across the various geographical areas and historical periods.  To present this kind of cultural experience to those unfamiliar with it without giving the appropriate and detailed information does a disservice to the performers, their cultures and to the audience. I urge the promoters to improve on this disappointing situation.

I’m glad I went. It certainly is a break from classical piano concerts and that’s worth a whole lot.

Here’s an interesting clip on Mongolian throat singing, although not the same style as in the programme I saw:

An amazing  female throat singer:

And a discussion and demonstration by ethnomusicologist Mark van Tongeren:

http://www.folkways.si.edu/throat-singing-unique-vocalization-three-cultures/world/music/article/smithsonian

***

Review, July 24

Imogen Cooper, piano – HK City Hall Concert Hall, Thursday, June 18, 2015, 8 PMCooper pgm

Programme:

Chopin

Barcarolle in F#, Op.60

Schumann

Humoreske in B♭, Op.20
Interval
Schubert
12 German Dances, D. 790
 
Piano Sonata No. 20 in A, D.959

After spending the last two piano concerts in the realm of the gods, (Wang Yuja) it was a welcome relief to be back to where the level of playing and interpretation are on a human scale; one that I, and probably everyone else, can more comfortably relate to. I had a few flashbacks of the glory that Wang gave in those two previous concerts but it’s much easier to handle some intermittent thoughts than being submerged in the rarified atmosphere of superhuman perfection. Sounds like another way of saying, “it’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Tonight’s concert presented a very enjoyable programme, even if the weekday starting time meant, I came in a few minutes after the start—of the second piece. Over the years I have tried to become at least a little familiar with what the artist I will be seeing is playing and I would very much have liked to have heard Cooper’s interpretation of the Chopin Barcarolle which has quite a number of divergent interpretations. But it was get there as soon as I could, or give it up entirely.

Cooper gave a very intelligent performance, and the Schumanesque elements were very strong. There were the gentle melodic phrasings followed by rapid and urgent menace that are similar to that of much of Schumann’s later work. His musical genius is undoubted but he was lucky to have lived in the time and place that he did. Lucky, because in the end he did marry the girl he loved; he also had the opportunity to compose and have the world hear and accept his work. In today’s world it is more likely he would have ended up in prison and marked for life as a pedophile. Most programme notes like to elide this truth in various ways. Tonight’s says Clara was, “nine years his junior. . .” But do the math folks that makes her eleven when he’s 20. No wonder Dad had “objections.” I don’t want to meet the parent who doesn’t. Like I said he was lucky and so are we because we have the results of his genius. And he and Clara married and stayed together until his mental affliction ended in a failed suicide attempt and institutionalization some 14 years after their marriage. It just goes to show that the ‘one-size fits all’ views society has of those who don’t conform, may lead to unjust conclusions.

There are several of Schumann’s works that I am very familiar with but Humoresque is not among them. On listening to it on Youtube I didn’t really feel the humor that it is supposed to contain so I was very pleased that Cooper brought it out throughout during the performance. Part of that might well be because it often takes a few hearings before the ear and mind acclimates and the listener really picks up not only details but begins to perceive the overall concept. Plus there is something quite special about live performances. They’ve spoiled me so that the idea of listening to a CD, at least classical, has much less interest for me. Not at all like before I moved to Hong Kong from Portland, a place where in multiple lifetimes I couldn’t have seen a single Hong Kong year’s worth of this level of live classical performances. And I didn’t even know about that when I moved here.

Cooper has a lovely sensibility and is able to infuse her playing with tenderness and graceful phrasing that makes each of the works a coherent whole. She doesn’t make my heart rate increase at her hands moving so fast that they are a blur. Her pianissimos were within the range of human expectations and in keeping with what you always knew a piano could do. And I liked it anyway.

After the interval, it was all Schubert and Cooper made those dances swing. The twelve dances have a variety of melodies and rhythms and she made it easy to picture the dancers and feel the rhythms. The programme notes mentioned that these dances ”go far beyond mere drawing room triffles . . .  and foretell something of the course that music . . .” would develop and be revealed later in “. . . the work of the next generation, that of Chopin and of Schumann.” I’d suggest adding they foreshadow the dances of Brahms and Dvořák as well.

I love many composers but three are at the top of my list: Bach, Schubert and Wagner. Bach and Wagner represent two extremes of musical styles and extremes can be good. What all three have in common is not immediately clear, but they do have the ability to affect me on a deeper, more emotional level than any other composers.

The final piece was a Schubert sonata, apparently one of the last pieces he wrote before his death. Look at that number, 959. Just think of the masterpieces we could have had if he’d lived a full life! You want an argument for there not being a god? — Schubert dead at 32.

This piece is playful and passionate, introspective and plaintive at times with an attractive, short, melodic line that recurs again and again with variations and developments. Its appearance and reappearance gives it an almost haunting quality as the charming aspects with repetition become disturbing.

Cooper played a delightful encore and I don’t have a clue what it was but it captured the feeling of playing a lighthearted game of surprise with a small child. Definitely not from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. It was a perfect way to close out a very enjoyable evening.

Here Cooper plays Schubert Impromptu, No. 4 in A-flat: Allegretto, (Four Impromptus D. 899)

* * *

Review, July 19, 2015

Yuja Wang, Triptich 2, HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8PM, June 16

Programme2010Yuja_Wang_by_Felix_Broede

Scriabin
Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1

Prelude Op. 11, No, 8
Fantasie in b minor, Op. 28
Chopin
Piano Sonata No.3, Op. 58
Interval

Chopin
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op 35
Scriabin
Piano Sonata No.9, Op. 68, Black Mass
Balakirev
Islamey (1902 reversion)

Attention: The Bank of Adjectives is facing an unprecedented drawdown; further withdrawals may be curtailed due to insufficient funds.* It’s only the second of Wang Yuja’s three concerts this week and I’ll be out of pianistic superlatives before the end of this paragraph. The only fitting one left is ‘phenomenal.’ Now we’re done. I’ll do my best to scrape by somehow.

The hall was filled on all sides and across the auditorium including behind the stage. Ms Wang is known for, among other things, her bold sartorial choices. Tonight she entered with a gorgeous, long, silvery-white, iridescent, nearly backless gown. Picture: walking mermaid. Got it? Ms Wang is certainly very attractive and it may be that some came to this concert for her looks, but they would soon discover that she offers much more than a pretty package and hopefully most were here for her piano playing.

The second half saw her resplendent in a slinky, dark, purpley-black, hmmmm, let’s make that an indigo gown with a strategically placed cut-out on the audience’s side, her right, and on the opposite side it was mostly backless.

It’s exciting to see someone who is only 28 playing at such a level and trying to imagine where her abilities might take her. It seems possible that the piano world will lose, or perhaps be spared, any number of pianists who after training for a known standard of excellence are suddenly faced with a level that has been exponentially raised. The prospect’s either exhilarating or terrifying for the pianistic world. If we’re lucky, we’ll find she has inspired rather than intimidated and we will be moving into uncharted musical territory. Surely there are composers salivating at the prospect of writing for her and if not then she needs to compose for herself because she’s not, figuratively speaking, just playing outside the box, she’s smashed it to bits. (See the previous review for some additional performance details.)

One of the great benefits of attending so many concerts is learning the less familiar repertoire. As a child I went to piano recitals occasionally and they always featured one or more Beethoven sonatas. It’s been years since I last attended such a performance. Tonight’s programme is far from most audiences’ comfort zones. It may have been an introduction, for those who hadn’t seen her 2009 Premiere Performances HK debut concert, to not only Ms Wang but the joys and perils of the Russian composer, Scriabin. He is a challenging composer with difficult and demanding passages that mingle melodic and dissonant elements. Ms Wang seems on a mission to make Scriabin palatable, moving and exciting. I imagine his Youtube hits increase greatly after one of her recitals. (I enjoyed the Scriabin so much, I now have a ticket for another pianist, Robin Zebaida, in August, whose program includes Scriabin.)

The silence in the auditorium during her performance and the lack of fidgeting by nearby children attest to the magic Wong casts over the concert hall. In our cultural centre concert hall there’s this thing that happens: the printed brochures slip from inattentive fingers and hit the hardwood floor like a shotgun blast. The number of these reverberations shrank to single digits, a first.

Tonight’s four pieces by Scriabin were definitely in Wang’s comfort zone. Although, I admit I’m now considering maybe she doesn’t have a discomfort zone but there’s got to be such, right? It’s a challenge trying to speculate on what that might be. You could look at what she hasn’t been playing, but then at 28, she’s had to concentrate on something; if she decides to take on Bach, Schumann or Villa Lobos, I really can’t imagine they’d be anything less than spectacular.

After the completion of her programme, Ms Wang played four un-introduced encores: my best guess is the first was by Schubert, followed by “Tea for Two,” in what sounded very jazzy, and ragtimey and later investigation revealed it to be an arrangement by Art Tatum. The others were repeats of Saturday’s encores: “Turkish March” or “Rondo à la Turk,” arr. by Acardi Volodos, and the Carmen variations arr. by Horowitz.

The audience gave her a standing ovation. In some parts of the world that’s normal but in 11 years in HK, this was one of only a handful I’ve seen. For whatever reason, it’s not part of the classical music culture here though they do it in concerts of other types of music. In the latter case, the audience’s reaction may contain a deep sense of gratitude given that other types of musicians rarely come here. I’m glad to report we gave Ornette Coleman a standing ovation when the great jazz innovator came to Hong Kong in 2008. This great artist, the originator of Free Jazz, died on June 11, 2015. RIP.

In the foyer, after Wang Yuja’s concert I overheard, “There were times I couldn’t believe just one person was playing. There was so much sound.” Another fellow concert attendee said she had never heard anyone play like that before.”

Agreed.

(On June 28, watching the live presentation of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia, on medici.tv, it became clear that America’s George Li, age 19, is already fast on her heels. He gave a unique interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s very familiar Piano Concerto #1; when can we expect to see you in Hong Kong, George?)

Wonderful video of Scriabin’s Prelude for Left Hand which he composed after suffering from a serious injury to his right hand.

Tea for Two times two:

1.

2.

An entire Wang Yuja concert in Verbier, below, begins with three Schubert songs transcribed by Liszt.There’s encores at the end and lots more between.

Her website:

http://yujawang.com/

Ornette Coleman the same year he played here:

* (Note – when I wrote the lighthearted reference to financial controls, it was weeks before the financial predators tightened the noose around the neck of Greek democracy.) OXI!

***

Review, July 13, 2015

YUJA WANG, Triptych 1, HK Philharmonic Orchestra, Wang Yu-ja, pianist,  Jaap van Zweden, conductor

HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday, June 13, 8 pm

Wang yuja1Programme
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, in E flat, K271, Jeunehomme

Interval
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Eroica

To me she’s always been Wang Yu-ja, but the gravitation pull of we$tern ways has warped many a Chinese name into following the order of ‘first (given) name, last (family) name,’ and that’s how she’ll be listed on searches and the like. Tonight’s concert is the second night of this first of three separate concerts that Ms Wang is performing between now and June 18. She is artist in residence with the HK Phil.

There are many pianists that I am eager to see but not many artists of any genre that I am willing to attend three of their concerts in such a short space of time. I’m not sure which number would max me out for this particular pianist but three doesn’t come anywhere close. If I’ve already felt pushed to the wall for adjectives given the number of talented pianists that blitzed through Hong Kong with a spate of four at the end of April to mid-May, how am I going to make it through this challenging week?

But enough of the spectre of future vocabulary deficits; what about tonight’s performance? My cup of tea is not Mozart. For me, he’s the musical equivalent of Lipton’s and I admit to having avoided practically every Mozart concerto that has come through Hong Kong for the past 11 years and so it was with moderated anticipation that I attended tonight’s performance. I should have known that if anyone could hand me the poisoned chalice and bid me drink, it is Wang Yu-ja.

This woman has so much going for her, that ‘what does she do and how does she do it?” has got to be the question that every pianist in the world must at some point be asking, because she is unlike anyone I have ever seen or heard since I started listening with what I hope is a somewhat critical ear.

What’s extraordinary? Well for one, she has a highly refined ability to let each individual finger deliver a clearly separate level of dynamics within a single run of notes I didn’t know was even possible. Her dynamics are literally off the charts. In a recording studio they simply could not have a microphone sensitive enough to pick up her delicate pianissimos, softer than you can believe could come from a piano. If such a mic let you hear those soft notes, the fortissimos would blow out your speakers.

She has so much musicality combined with sensitive phrasing and nuanced touches that every measure is riveting and plays its part in an overarching concept. You simply don’t know what new treasure she will uncover from one passage to the next but they are never sidebars or distractions. Wang brought out all of the playfulness in the first movement that is typical of Mozart but made it interesting and focused in a way that the more usual and random kind of playfulness is not.

The second movement was filled with a deep sensitivity that approached the sublime. The programme notes called it ‘operatic.’ Maybe, but what a Lacrimosa this could have been. Mozart might well have adapted it for his own Requiem had death not stayed his hand.

In her three previous appearances, she had regaled us with the likes of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Scriabin and other composers from the romantic and post-romantic repertoire. Many pianists have a favored genre and period which is translated into how they perform a work. I would never have guessed that she had such a deft touch for Mozart and I have no idea if she loves his music more or less than the others she plays. She’s either polyamorous when it comes to music or a superb pianistic poker player. I can’t imagine being able to call her bluff. She certainly has provided a key to unlocking Mozart that I fear few else will follow.

She played two incredible encores. The first was immediately recognizable as a transcription of Carmen by Horowitz. The second was a jazzed-up version of Rondo à la Turk, arr. by Acardi Volodos, as seen in the video below. The main differences between tonight’s performance and the video is the casual attire and her approach. In the live performances I have seen, she loves to dress in colourful long gowns, or super short skirts and stiletto heels. She’s sexy and loves it. The other difference is she has grown into this piece and is in much greater command of the keyboard and now seems more relaxed. In tonight’s encore she increased the jazzy rhythms so the various elements, from barrelhouse to ragtime to boogie are much more clearly articulated.

God, I love virtuosos, whether singers, dancers, or musicians of any instrument (sports too) but virtuosity alone is not enough; it needs to be in service of a strong and coherent overall vision. The best artists bring their intelligence and musical approach to reveals unique conceptions brimming with passion, expressiveness, sensitivity and extreme dedication.

Did I mention Ms Wang plays faster and with more control than seems humanly possible? Has she channeled all the great pianists of yesteryear or is she music incarnate? To think I’m going to see her play twice more within a week. Just think, another pianist is right in the middle of those two dates. Ouch! And still another world-class pianist before the month is out? OMG.

I do believe there was also an orchestra, a good one and yes, some Beethoven. But I was so wrapped up in the revelations of Ms Wang, I failed to give it proper attention.

When I first saw her, in her debut almost six years ago, I told my friend, who is a talented Hong Kong piano teacher: “She’s the one.” Yes, indeed.

Rachmaninoff, concerto No. 1. I’d never noticed before Rachmaninoff’s tribute to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier but Yuja’s shone such a spotlight on it that even a dilettante like me couldn’t miss it.

***

Review, June 25, 2015

DiotimabSa Chen & Diotima Quartet, 7:00 PM, Saturday, May 30, 2015. Jockey Club Ampitheatre, HK Academy for the Performing Arts

Chen Sa, Piano (That’s what her name was before the ‘artists’ management types’ got hold of her)
Yunpeng Zhao – violin
Constance Ronzati – violin
Franck Chevialier – viola
Pierre Morlet – cello

Programme

Debussy:         Clair de lune & Passepied from Suite Bergamasque
Lekeu:              Adagio for String quartet
Franck            Quartet for Piano and strings in f minor

Chen standaIn choosing a short piece for Lief Ove Andsnes, I picked Clair de lune and the day after posting it, this very piece was the first one played. The notices had only mentioned the Franck so the first two pieces were unexpected, and the second, completely unknown to me. I like to get a little familiar with works before attending a concert. It truly is the least I can do besides just showing up. I waited too long to buy the ticket, and I ended up behind the pianist once more. However there are some major differences between Ms Chen and Mr. Andsnes’ backs. Although, as with him, it wasn’t possibly to see her face and note how expressive it was, the more or less backless dress allowed some glimpses of body language to show through.

This Moonlight was moon-lite; not in a negative or slighting sense. Chen’s was delicate and that’s how moonlight always seems to me; I loved picturing the moonlight bobbing and rippling over the waters of the Seine, following it across the flagstone walkways and traversing the stone steps along its embankment. I don’t recall ever having such a pictorial musical tour of Paris by moonlight before. Many thanks!

The Bergamasque that followed was delightful and charming. Chen has a way of swaying with the music that is quite visible in her back muscles. Her playing was expressive with sharply focused phrasings, both delicate and more forceful ones. It was agreat start to yet another fabulous concert. The night before had been all Russians playing mostly all Russian music, it was appropriate, for Le French May, it was all French in the music, and mostly French players.

Lekeu was performed with excitment and presented a substantial contrast to the impressionistic Debussy. It also provided an intelligent segue into the Franck with all its dissonances and intimations of bitterness and tragedy lurking in the background. The Lekeu begins with long, slashing strings that stop and repeat creating an unsettled feeling of ominous tension. According to the programme notes, author unnamed, Guillame Lekeu, was a Belgian. What?? Belgian on an all French programme? Who studied in Paris, Oh. And studied with Franck himself, Oh, OK.

This work was written in 1891 when Lekeu was only 21 years of age; he died only three years later. The anonymous notes’ author suggests that this work might have been influential, or what he is really implying, stolen from: “The Adagio for Strings is shocking for its uncanny, pre-echoing of Schoenberg’s 1899 Transfigured Night [Verklarte Nacht].. . . But premonitions of the Schoenberg at certain points in Lekeu’s 11 minute work seem almost too strong to be accidental or coincidental.” He sounds like an intellectual property lawyer seeking to make a case. Luckily, for them and us, both of these pieces exist and no injunction can be issued against either.

Later I re-listened to Verklarte Nacht. There are some similarities. A deep melancholia permeates both of these works and, given the decade, might well be a general case of fin de siècle blues. I’m not a musician so I didn’t hear those so close ‘pre-echoings.’ (But see note below with video.)

This music was conducive to intense concentration and even more than usual I noticed some things I normally don’t, for example, the sound at the final note of Clair de lune. I could clearly see Chen’s foot on the pedal and this visual component augmented the aural. I heard the note continue on ever so lightly and long until she began the Bergamasque.

The quartet’s first violinist sat directly in front of me facing the same direction as I, but he played with such eagerness and energy that I almost all his face wwas visible as he moved with the music. The second violinist had fingers on her left hand that stuck straight up. I don’t think I have ever seen that before. I can’t imagine this can be proper technique as fingers need to be as close as possible to the strings to quickly change notes. The farther from the string the more time to complete the move. There’s an approved and theoretically perfect technique but it’s amazing that many wonderful musicians make beautiful music without it. Talent can, although not always, override inherent technical disadvantages. If only they had started the ‘right way,’ imagine where might they be today? Women often make adjustments to offset the lack of physical strength required to hold down strings. There’s definitely a gender bias inherent in most musical instruments and to compensate requires  adaptations, such as gaining greater power and leverage in the other fingers when the index finger is raised. It’s a new piece of music – the mind wanders where it will.

I was sure I’d be fine, having liked some of Franck’s other works for years, so I put off listening to this piece and only on Friday morning did I discover it was an earful. At the concert, however, I found it more accessible and it will become more familiar with repeated listening.

The Diotima Quartet is very young and talented. Their tonal palette was varied and full of passionate expression. They made me want to hear them and each of the works again. But next time, what about not having two world-class quartets on consecutive evenings?

Tonight’s venue was a vault-like, semi-circular, indoor amphitheater. Its high ceilings, hardwood floors and bare walls gave little warmth to the music and threatened to abscond with the players’ musical intentions. I hope to see them play in a more chamber-like environment.

This Lekeu’s adagio is not easily found. Instead I found this wonderful rendition of Lekeu’s orchestral adagio by the Chamber Orchestra of the Kremlin with very similar feelings to that of the quartet. Noticeable also are musical affinities between this piece and Verklarte Nacht, mentioned above. This exact quartet adagio is on YouTube with four youngsters playing it in a church somewhere in Idaho or the like.

Here’s Chen Sa in full, but less glamorous, artistry from six years ago. This is closer to how I remember her.

***

Review, June 19, 2015

Borodin Quartet – Friday, May 29, 8:00 pm, Hong Kong City Hall   BorodinQ2bConcert Hall
Viewed May 29 – reviewed May 30

Ruben Aharonian – violin
Sergei Lomovsky – violin
Igor Naidin – viola
Vladimir Balshin – cello
Alexie Volodin – piano

Programme:

Borodin:          String Quartet No. 2 in D major
Schubert:  String Quartet No. 12 in c minor, D 703, Quartettsatz

Intermission

Dvořák:  Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81

I’ve heard that chamber music isn’t as big a crowd pleaser as some of the other classical music forms as but for me it has always been one of my favorites. Long before symphonies, I loved string quartets, piano trios and the like. Actually, I’m still working on symphonies. Here in Hong Kong chamber music is much less frequently performed, but when it is, we’ve gotten some of the top ensembles as well as individual recitalists joining in chamber music performances.

In other parts of the world they bewail the lack of new audiences for classical music and the decrepitude of their fan base. Music directors the world over would be gnashing their teeth over the young people who fill our concert halls. Immediately beside me and in every direction there were youngsters ranging from ages that might suggest they were forced to accompany the parents, due to babysitting issues, to high school students and those in their 20s. The number of students taking music lessons here is extremely high and many of them attend concerts as part of enhancing their musical education. Incredibly, at January’s opera in concert of Das Rheingold, I actually sat next to a young couple who were on a date. I mean, what?

When you work too far away to get to the concert before it starts, you wonder whether to buy a ticket. Luckily, you don’t have to think too hard when your choice is the Borodin Quartet and the venue is Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. This is a rare location where latecomers are allowed to wait inside the concert venue standing at the rear of the auditorium until the piece ends and you can make a break for your assigned seat. I arrived about 3 minutes into the first movement of the Borodin quartet No.2. Certainly it’s one I am very familiar with.

This quartet ensemble is more than 70 years old, albeit not with former child prodigies now in their 80s and 90s. The continuous existence since it was founded has seen the passing of the baton or bows a number of times over that period and I have seen them in a couple of different combinations of players. For sure, they don’t always play Borodin but their impeccable unity, tightly coordinated rhythms and intertwined melodies suggest great familiarity, perhaps even too familiar. It felt a little as if they were slipping on a comfy pair of favorite slippers rather than bright, shiny new dancing shoes. I almost said ‘bright, shiny beads’ and anyone familiar with the first movement of this quartet, with a modicum of awareness of Broadway and movie musicals, will recognize the mother lode that Kismet tapped for its musical gold.

The second movement was also plundered, resulting in the song “This is My Beloved.” I know I said I love all kinds of music but I lied – not most musicals. That means I could only have seen this movie on TV in my childhood, and surely only once. So it was a bit shocking to find, to my horror, I could sing along with some of the words, silently of course. That’s how insidious these thieves of musical treasure are. It took ten years before I could listen to Beethoven’s 6th symphony without seeing Fantasia’s ridiculous dinosaurs and as for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Fageddaboutit.

The music in the 4th movement takes a completely different turn from the other movements with immediate swooping dissonance that introduces tension in an altered mood and momentum. I felt the quartet members increased their own interest and intensity as well. We’re off Broadway now.

The second piece is an unfinished work of Schubert’s which consists of a single movement, hence ‘Quartettsatz,’ ranging from rapid and harsh sounds to a lively tune. The very large and longish haired violist bobbed his head and body along with the dance-like melody which after having erupted just as suddenly stopped. The music goes in different directions before returning to the dance near the conclusion. They played with energy and bravura from beginning toend the conclusion.

After the intermission, (I can’t believe they called it that instead of ‘interval’ which has been standard here.) they played the Dvořák 2nd piano quartet. The first movement is very melodic and all of the musicians were fullAlexie1ay engaged in this also quite familiar work. The pianist, Alexie Volodin, was very closely integrated with the ensemble and they made a strong impression of close camaraderie and musicianship. Interestingly, for Hong Kong audiences, the page turner looked to be former child piano prodigy, Wong Wai-yin, who I first saw play when she was about 12 years old and that was obviously a few years ago.

The encore was the Scherzo from Shostakovitch’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. Wow! This was dazzling. The intricacies of the rhythms and the, I guess Russianness, of it was tremendous. I had heard this work at a recent chamber music festival, but it was not quite so Russian and that changes everything. Sure, the others did a wonderful job, trying to reproduce it as faithfully as possible, but when you hear these guys, you get this intangible, added dimension of authenticity. Their vivacity and the comedy, as well as the undertones of implied menace, were riveting. They played with such alacrity the pages were flying. It was an exhilarating ending to a fine musical evening.

Here is an earlier incarnation of this quartet playing the Borodin 2nd String Quartet

 ***

Review June 12, 2015

The Will to Build 2015 – Theatre du Pif, Sunday, May 17, 4:00 PM, Shoshon Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre (1/F) Reviewed May 21, 2015

Cast:will to build 2015

Ching Yee-chai
Sean Curran
Rico Wu
Larry Ng
Chow Wing-yan
Kenneth Sze
Hofan Chow
Bonni Chan

The opening sentence of the programme tells us, “The Will to Build examines the past, present and future of the city’s relentless cycle of construction and destruction, and its effects on the bodies, hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants.” It does that and much more.

The play itself covers a wide variety of issues and topics in the form of ‘documentary theatre’ and does not have a narrative plot. The dialogue, and there is plenty of it, is all based on excerpts from actual interviews of nearly 20 people from Hong Kong, who are each listed in the programme and come from different walks of life.

But it isn’t simply show and tell, stand up and recite, rather these snatches of dialogue are interwoven into sketches that are to some extent loosely connected through props and movement, which includes dance, conversations, confrontations, commentary, throw downs, exchanges, interactions, asides and other forms of communication.

There are minimal sets and costumes along with small but focused multimedia touches that keeps the audience’s attention on the action. The multimedia insertions play various roles throughout the 100 minute performance. Space is a key concept and, not surprisingly, along with the dialogue, some images are not only of buildings but are projected onto and into shapes that resemble buildings. The audience is expected to be aware of the civic issues that are background to the production–how the people of Hong Kong have been squeezed into undersized flats by the collusion of the property developers and the governments, both the British and that of the subsequent HKSAR. In recent times, the problem has been exacerbated by ever more arrivals into Hong Kong, as well as hot money seeking investments which collide with the needs of the local people. These factors have meant continued increases in home and rental prices to form an issue close to the hearts of many in Hong Kong.

I found it very entertaining and engaging, as well as thought provoking with its challenges to the dominant narrative structure in Hong Kong, especially the issue of living space and its psychological effects. This is an issue that has also been explored by directors in Hong Kong’s all too small independent film industry/community, for example Brian Chang Wai Hung in Among the Stars, and Anson Mak in One-Way Street on a Turntable. (Shengxia, Huo. 霍勝俠, Thematic Concerns and Aesthetic Practice of Hong Kong Independent Cinema since 1997, 2015. print. PhD thesis)

There is something of a soundtrack with various voices and sounds, including music but, interestingly, only one song was presented in almost its entirety. The song, “Gute Nacht,” was sung in German and is the first song of the powerful song cycle, Winterreise, (Wanderer), in which poems of Wilhelm Müller were set to music by Franz Schubert.* It’s a bit challenging trying to think about that poem and music and how it might fit into the play’s context. Perhaps the particular song and cycle are meant to underscore the idea of the Wanderer, who, in the song, is sent into exile from a place he thought to make his home for reasons beyond his control. This would represent the uncertain, unstable relationship of the people of Hong Kong to its physical space which could be extended to its political status. Or maybe somebody just liked the music.

Overall, the play is well cast, well directed and acted with enthusiasm and commitment. One minor quibble: A challenge for any director is to deliver a clearly spoken text in the midst of dynamic staging. No one would want actors to simply stand and declaim towards the audience. For the most part, this production got it right. But there were times when the English was not audible or clearly enunciated. Fortunately, those moments were few. Some were due to rapidly delivered, heavily accented speech but other times were due to placement on stage where the actors voices were projected away from the audience. As the surtitles give Chinese when English is spoken and English when Chinese is spoken, they were of no help in such circumstances. An ‘all languages, all the time’ approach might fix this problem but surely would raise others.

I felt the sales pitch, at the end of the curtain calls, undercut the more thoughtful engagement the work itself had engendered. Admittedly, the items for sale were unique and made meaningful when explained in their context to the production, however, a more preferable approach, IMHO, is to announce that cast members would meet the audience afterwards for a Q & A which could then include a more detailed product pitch. This might be a better way to generate more interest in the production and by putting time between the play and the pay, they might also sell more products.

This play is entitled, The Will to Build 2015, and looking in the programme, there is The Will to Build, 2008, and also one dated 2010. I wish I had seen those others to know what changed and what might have remained the same.

If there’s another The Will to Build 20xx, I will make it a point to be there, if I haven’t been forced to become a Wanderer before then.

*(I had attended a Winterreise lieder abend, this past January 3, with Roman Trekel and Ian Pohl at Schiller Theater, Berlin – pre-blog.)

***

Review June 5, 2015

Arthur Moreira Lima, pianist – 8:oo pm May 9, 2015, Hong Kong City HaLeaflet A_opll Concert Hall – All Chopin programme presented by Maestro Performances Hong Kong

Viewed May 9, reviewed May 9 – 10, 2015

 Programme

Nocturne Op. 48, No.1, in c minor
Polonaise in A♭ major, Op. 53
Three Waltzes: Op. 18, No. 1, in E♭ major, Op. 42 No. 5 in A♭ major; & Op. 64, No. 7 in c♯ minor
Ballade Op. 23, No. 1 in g minor
Two Mazurkas: Op. 17 No. 4, in a minor; Op. 33 No. 2, in D major
Scherzo Op. 31 in b ♭ minor

Brazilian pianist, Maestro Lima was second prize winner in the International Chopin Competition in 1965 and his debut visit to Hong Kong was due to the efforts of Maestro Performances Hong Kong. This organization has booked more top prize winners, http://www.maestrohk.org  Some have already happened and I missed them but others are upcoming and will be performances to look forward to.

I am beginning to ask myself what more can I say about yet another pianist? Is there anything worth commenting on, any meaningful distinction between this accomplished artist and the last/next? For me, after this, the fourth pianist in a row, the answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Though it’s an increasing challenge to find the words that would validate the conclusion that this concert was worth going to or conversely, and luckily much less frequently, that it was a waste of time.

The first part of Maestro Lima’s All-Chopin programme was filled with many well known compositions. It was very interesting to hear all of them together. I thought the pieces, themselves, as well as their ordering was meaningful in that their juxtaposition allowed the non-musician to really appreciate the wide variety of compositional styles that Chopin incorporated into his works as well as being able to see the different skills required to perform each of the pieces at a high level. There is no question that Maestro Lima knows these pieces very, very well and, without using any sheet music, played them flawlessly.

I enjoyed the concert and want to share a few things: There was a noticeable lack of verve or spring in his step when he walked on stage; he looked a bit grim before the interval and sat rather hunched over the piano; and that, together with his lack of expressive body language as he played caused me to think – well he’s old and I’m old and I’m tired and maybe he’s a little bit tired too. Nothing jarred but nothing sizzled either.

The 24 Preludes are wonderful to hear in their entirety as they are short pieces that follow the circle of fifths until it completes every key. The changes in mood and expression with the different keys is easier to discern when they are played in succession. His intent and approach had stepped up a notch from the first half of the programme. I felt I was watching a fine, if not stellar, performance. His rubato was restrained and he never approached, much less toppled over into sentimentality. His left hand was, at times, an undifferentiated rumble, noisy and just noticeably there. Not being a musician, I don’t know if that was the composer’s intention or the pianist’s interpretation of some of the heavier bass chords. Part of it, I am sure, was because he can play them so incredibly fast, faster than the non-musicians’ ears can keep up with, thereby rendering those chords a blur of sound rather than the music they are intended to be.

And everything changed at encore time. His body language, his facial expressions, his steps onto and off the stage were completely different and he was smiling. Throw tired out the window, Lima had no hesitation in playing several encores. The first was by Brazilian composer, Hector Villa Lobos. From there, he played another Brazilian piece, which he announced but whose title I couldn’t catch. Lima was almost dancing as he played. Such a difference! Suddenly ‘encore’ meant resuscitation.

By the time of the final encore, a more extended piece by Astor Piazola, it was like a different performer had taken the stage. The change was so striking that it reminded me of Mihail Rudy shedding the Petrushka straight jacket, mentioned in an earlier review.

Maestro Lima in an all-South American programme sounds a treat.

Hong Kong will be hosting another Brazilian pianist in early September. In June, there are five piano concerts, three by the same artist. We are so spoilt for piano choices here. And I’m going to be up against it trying to find something worth saying, but then that’s now, I am going to put my faith in the artists and programmes being able to distinguish themselves. We shall see.

Things slow down a bit in July and August. I’ll be taking a break for a holiday so may skip a week or two, depending. Otherwise, as long as I think there is something to say and I have access to a computer, HK sounds will continue.

Videos:

This is Maestro Lima from quite some time ago, Chopin Prelude #17, Op. 28. Interesting camera angles let you watch from almost every direction. This is back when Chopin still had the power to move him.

A piece with dance rhythms entitiled “Odeon:”

Playing Villa Lobos from 2010:

***

Review May 29, 2015

MCO ovesMahler Chamber Orchestra – Leif Ove Andsnes, piano/Director

Hong Kong, Sunday 8:00 PM, May 3, 2015 – Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Concert Hall

All Beethoven Programme
Cariolan Overture – Henja Semmler Leader
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15
Interval
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op. 58

Viewed and Review – May 3, 2015

So far, almost all my reviews have been pretty much favorable towards the performances with only a few that were less so. It’s really much easier to write about bad performances, or so I’ve heard, but I’m not having much luck finding them. It’s tricky having to write so many good reviews. It presents a challenge to find new ways to discuss outstanding performances so that the reviews, to some extent, reflect the variety of the performances and don’t all end up boringly, sounding the same. This concert poses yet another such challenge.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is one of the finest that we have had the pleasure to see in Hong Kong, now for the second time in the past four years. There have been some noticeable changes since then. Last time was with conductor, Daniel Harding;* this time not. Therefore, when the Coriolan Overture started up, it was led by the Concertmaster, Henja Semmler. She came out, the orchestra tuned up, she sat down and away they went.

I can’t remember seeing such exuberant playing. The heads were bobbing, hair was flying, the bodies were bending and swaying and a few even bounced up and out of their chairs. Wow! No matter how you felt about the music, you couldn’t help being carried away on their infectious, spirited performance. And the music was fine but let’s face it, no one was there for this overture.

Then for the main event: Leif Ove Andsnes on the Steinway. For the first time in a long time, or maybe even ever, for me, the piano was positioned with the keyboard facing the orchestra seats, the Steinway had lost its top and the conductor/pianist had his back to the majority of the audience. I must admit that I had not heard or heard of Maestro Andsnes before but that’s certainly not going to ever happen again. This man can play piano!

What I have remembered the most about the first piano concerto, (which is known as Beethoven’s concerto #1 but actually was written after the concerto #2, but published before it…) is how wonderfully rhythmic and beautifully phrased it is. Andsnes didn’t shy away from indulging in the playfulness that exists, sometimes hidden away, in many of Beethoven’s works. He allowed the lighthearted aspects to shine through in each of the movements. In the final movement, the almost jazz-like syncopations were accented just enough to let the audience appreciate how advanced Beethoven’s rhythmic structure really was, but without being pedantic, ponderous, overbearing or overemphasized.

The Fourth piano concerto is much more well-known and I would imagine many in the audience were familiar with it. Andsnes’s interpretation was phenomenal. He teased out wonderful fragments of melodic phrases that lie tucked in the music and, because they last for only a second or so, are not always brought forward in such a clear and delightful way. His rapid trilling was …. superb. His legato lines were excellent, his dynamics – thrilling. He brought forth massive power and delicate pianissimos all the while conducting the outstanding orchestra when the piano was silent.

What struck me the most, especially in the second movement, was his interweaving of the piano and orchestra. The overlapping, filling in all the interstitial spaces made for a truly seamless and tightly integrated experience, while never losing the separate voices. This is something I had not noticed before this performance.

(On a completely different and personal note, as I was leaving, I stumbled across, almost literally, one of Hong Kong’s iconic movie stars, (鍾楚紅) from the 1980s. She and two friends were in the same row and I had passed them when I came in and when I went out during the intermission and when I returned. Now at the end of the concert I was going to pass them
Cherie
yet again, hunh? I looked at them and saw that the woman sitting in the seat between them was “Oh my god! It’s Cherie Chung! Ahhhhhhhh!” Yes, I did; I did shriek that. Not loudly, of course, but I was super excited. I ended up with a couple of lousy selfies with her that she actually had to reach over and help me turn my phone so to get a halfway decent photo – sigh, camera loves her. But me, well I’ve probably seen less than half a dozen photos of me in my life time that I could stand to look at so that’s why only half is here.
What it meant when I left was, thinking about the concert had to share brain space with Cherie Chung and I got all the way to the MTR station before I remember that I had checked a bag at the reception and had to go all the way back to get it. Totally worth it.)

*FYI
June 5, 2011
MAHLER – Symphony No. 1: Blumine
MAHLER – Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Mahler Verlorne Müh’! – Mahler Das irdische Leben – Mahler Rheinlegendchen – Mahler Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen – Mahler Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?

MAHLER – Symphony No. 4, G major
Soloist: Mojca Erdmann
Conductor: Daniel Harding
It was fabulous. Is this my favorite orchestra? – Maybe.
Most of the Beethoven by Andsnes is quite long and I wanted something shorter that showed his talent and sensitivity:
Clair de Lune by Debussy

And now for something entirely different – Grieg’s March of the Trolls:

Even in the midst of troll mania – he has impeccable phrasing in notes that just fly by and many others would feel vindicated in just getting them out.

***

  Review, May 22, 2015

Colleen Lee, piano recital “The Spirit of Russia”- 8:00 PM, April 30, 2colleen015, Hong Kong City Hall, Theatre – Presented by Musica Viva

Viewed April 30, reviewed May 1, 2015

Programme

TchaikovskySeasons, Op. 37a
Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux, Op. 39 (5, 6 & 9)
Interval
MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition

Hong Kong’s own Colleen Lee has a talent that is obvious and shines through her strong technique, her musicality, her expressiveness and her exquisite phrasings. There’s no ‘just blurring through the notes’ with her.

But I already knew that before this concert. What was more revealing, in this programme, than previously, was how much of herself she puts into her playing. This included body language and facial expressions that absolutely captured the ideas of the pictures in the final work on the programme.

The evening opened with Seasons a work by Tchaikovsky that I was unfamiliar with. This is a lovely piece with much room for interpretation and expression which are necessary to convey the ideas and moods of the twelve pieces. Given the title, I was expecting four sections. Do they have twelve seasons in Russia? Perhaps, we can blame it on the English translation because clearly, from the names of each of the twelve parts, Tchaikovsky was talking about the entire year, moving through it month by month, which of necessity does go through the different seasons. Lee took us on a delightful journey through each of them. Starting in “January, By the fireside,” her romantic style and clear definition let us feel warm and cozy before the fire inside. We could see through our ears the flickering of the flames that shot up and died down intermittently as they pushed the cold out to the edges. Her thoughtful use of rubato increased the feeling of comfort and contentment.

From there we were treated to the lively and raucous sounds of February’s “Carnival,” followed by “The Lark’s Song” in which we heard the gentle sounds of birds indicating the beginning of spring. She went through all the months and seasons with noticeable differentiation between each, capturing the moods and ideas represented.

Rachmaninoff’s etudes, often lack this kind of programmatic aspects to act as a guide to the emotions and how to present them. The étude no. 5, is softer in dynamics and slower in tempo than the two that followed. Lee played it with elegance and found numerous melodic and musical phrasings to bring forth. The 6th étude is entirely different with its almost violent, crashing chords that begin and end the piece. The programme notes state that this étude was based on the story of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” This work could scare the daylights out of anyone and audiences would have no trouble picturing which is the wolf and which the little girl. I thought the way she interpreted this piece was very interesting. Not only could I feel the menace of the wolf, I could also see Little Red Riding Hood in a whole new light. Lee’s was not the more typical, scared little girl in a heap of trouble, instead this Red Riding Hood was a born thrill seeker whose excitement increased the closer she got to the wolf. What an intriguing way to look at this story, one that gives this innocent an edge but doesn’t negate the idea of innocence vs evil. I like it.

After the break, it was art gallery time and it was great going through and viewing the paintings. Again the programme notes were very thoughtful, albeit in need of a proofreader for correct English, and gave excellent descriptions of each of the paintings represented in this composition as well as other background material extraneous to the visualization of the pictures.

If Lee had shone before this portion of the programme, now she was simply dazzling. Her body language, as expressed through her facial expressions, were fully engaged and made every character come to life, even if for only the briefest of time. We could see the different children on the playground, moving from the frightened ones to the shy ones to the angry ones to the unsure ones; At one point, she had a picture of one character on the left hand and another on the right. If she ever stops playing, and let’s hope that’s not for many years, she could have a second career as an actress.

One of the funniest moments came in the final picture of Baba Yaga- The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Again we got the clear sense of menace and trouble that accompanies this character but we also got the chicken part which was delightful especially when, and I do hope she was fully aware of this, her arms were going up and down in opposite directions to each other, looking like chicken legs strutting along. Well done!

There were some unfortunate firsts: the piano, a Steinway by name, yes but… It did not remain in tune for even a short period after the programme commenced and wasn’t tuned again until the interval. Lee uses a lot of pedal and slack tuning does get much more noticeable in that circumstance. It didn’t stay tuned for long the second half either and was actually buzzing and clanging in spots. I have never heard this problem in Hong Kong before. Lee and her audience deserved better. This piano must be checked to see if there’s something wrong with it and it must be corrected or replaced at once.

The second first was the incredibly noisy and restless audience for a first class concert in one of the main performance venues. At least nobody’s phone went off as is so often the case.

There are many pianists who seem to choose their repertoire so as to avoid legatos, preferring to play staccato for almost an entire programme. Lee’s legato is like flowing water or streaming silk. Tonight we didn’t have enough of those long lines.

Not all firsts are bad ones, however. The first time I saw Lee, was when she accompanied a famous artist. I was there for the famous guy but it didn’t take long until it struck me for the very first time that I was in the presence of a pianist who never for an instant forgot she was playing a musical instrument. I look forward to another opportunity to see this truly special performer. She kept my attention for the remainder of that programme.

I have seen Colleen Lee play as accompanist, as part of a chamber music group and as a soloist. Surely a concerto might be in the future?

(One small suggestion for Ms Lee to consider, a beautiful long gown is supposed to look elegant and it does while seated at the piano. It looks quite the opposite, however, when hiked up to walk across the stage.)

Not a lot of recent videos of Colleen Lee but some things haven’t changed, she was and still is extremely expressive. She sits up straighter at the piano now.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/zPMwJFhfpd0

***

Review, May 15, 2015

Stephen Hung1Stephen Hung, piano – The Art of Fugue, Hong Kong City Hall Recital Hall – 8th floor, 8:00 PM April 25, 2015. Viewed and reviewed April 25.

Programme:

The Art of Fugue – Contrapuncti Nos. 1-11
Organ Prelude and Fugue in a minor (Transcription: Stephen Hung)
The Well-Tempered Clavier II:
Prelude and Fugue in f♯ minor, # 14
Prelude and Fugue in B major


Some preliminaries:

  1. I have thought for many years, that the single greatest argument for humans’ continued existence on this planet is Johann Sebastian Bach. There is simply no artist that I hold in higher regard. His art is an example of the finest we humans can do and is a call to all of us to follow his footsteps in beauty.
  2. I have the utmost admiration and respect for anyone who attempts and gets through a performance of Bach’s work.
  3. Many are called, few are chosen

Stephen Hung is a young and talented musician who has put together an ambitious programme, one that he is still learning to find his own way through. He was technically proficient and has learned all the notes in the correct order; he has yet to learn to enjoy playing them, at least before an unruly audience. He approached the music with a determination that was almost palpable. He watched his fingers with the intensity as if they were snakes.

For the first three pieces, it was difficult for the audience to understand that he had completed one and had moved on to another. Many of us are not that familiar with everyone of these works so we expect the artist to indicate when he has completed a piece. Additionally, the playing itself should clearly distinguish one piece from another. Even the audience members who are unfamiliar with these pieces should have no question as to whether he has gone on to something new. This means greater variation in his approach to the musical structure, as well as the individual melodies and harmonies, so that the Baroque stylings don’t overwhelm the particulars. (Or, did he perhaps skip some of the scheduled pieces or even rearrange the order?) A small point but when there exists already a great transcription of a work, for example, the Organ Prelude and Fugue in a minor, playing that other, well known, transcription, instead of one’s own, would more easily permit audience members, familiar with that other version, recognize what he was playing. There is the additional concern that the performer’s own transcription could result in too homogeneous a sound.

It wasn’t until the later portions of the programme that one could see and hear him relax a little and find a more musical pathway. Nerves, as well as the distractions of the venue, may have played a part; more on the venue aspect later. When there was no doubt that he had moved to another piece, the audience applauded and what followed was often more clearly distinguishable. Perhaps it is important for artists to take that moment to stand up, and get the circulation going again; this move into a new space, both physically and mentally is likely an important action that helps to reorient the artist before going on to perform something different.

Hung would benefit most from a closer attention to the phrasing of individual portions, to employing his dynamic pallet more thoughtfully, and to proceeding towards a coherent overall shaping of each piece. He does flirt with phrasings occasionally as he passes them by, but they remain for the most part, undiscovered. The audience is overwhelmed with note after note after note, as if uniform beads were being arbitrarily added on a string. Without the clear direction that phrasing can bring, what’s left is a nearly indistinguishable mass of sound in which the essentials are drowned out. For any composer that would be a problem but for Bach? Surely he was the master of pattern and infinite progressions, regressions, variations, iterations, inversions, repetitions, and… What else is Bach’s music but the mapping of the human soul upon the universe? In this performance there was no map.

Luckily, later in the programme, Hung’s performance was more relaxed than in the opening piece, “Art of the Fugue.” In that composition, he seemed at home with only two of the contrapuncti. I wondered why he had chosen to order his programme in such a way. Was his idea to get past the most challenging part so the remainder of the programme would all be downhill? (An ambiguous term if ever there was.)

He played one encore. The aria from the Goldberg Variations is surely the one composition I have listened to more than any other. In it, he introduced some personal elements, most notably some staccato touches in places that are more commonly played legato. I found those changes interesting and noticeable in a programme that had otherwise been lacking in personal touches.

Hung is apparently in his twenties, young enough to make a career for himself in music but, given the numbers of talented and younger pianists currently performing on the world stage, it is questionable whether his career will go beyond joining the ranks of the many talented piano instructors that Hong Kong provides a safe harbour for.

I hope his next performance will be in a different venue and not one that seems to be a babysitting service, as the house was more than half filled with youngsters who seemed to be completely unsupervised with all of the accompanying annoyances and disturbances that can bring. To what extent this environment may have affected him, is unknown. I wish him better than that and I feel certain that this location could not have been conducive to a great performance by almost anyone. Most of all, I hope that he comes to express his enjoyment, which he no doubt has, in performing this most sublime of all music. If he can make that happen, the road ahead will be one to look forward to for both Stephen Hung and his audience alike.

(Additional notes: 1. This venue is not in the familiar City Hall Theatre/Concert Hall building but in the tall building on the street you pass before you enter the concrete garden. It’s the one that houses the library. 2. The programme notes are missing the BWV numbers, as well as the number of the individual pieces, such as #14, #23, and fails to inform that the two Preludes and Fugues following the Well Tempered Clavier, II, belong under that heading.)

 Organ Prelude and Fugue in a minor (Liszt transcription) played by Carlo Lombardi (Never heard of him but this is a bravura performance and one in which the listener can actually believe the organ is there disguised inside the façade of a piano.)

Angela Hewitt briefly comments on and performs this piece: (She performed the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and II, in Hong Kong about 9 or 10 years ago.)

***

Review, May 8, 2015

MilosMiloš Karadaglić, classical guitar – 8:oo pm April 19, 2015, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall- Presented by Premiere Performances

Viewed April 19, reviewed April 20.

Sor: Mozart Variations
Regondi: Rêverie Op. 19
Granados: Danza No. 2, Oriental
Bach: Chaconne BWV 1004 (arr. Miloš)
Interval
Falla: Dance del Milnero (arr. Michael Lewin)
Falla: Homenaja
Falla: Danza Española No. 1
Jobim: Girl from Ipanema (arr. Sergio Assad)
Velásquez: Bésame Mucho
Ben Jor: Mas que nada (Black-Eyed Peas)
Ginastera: Sonata for Guitar

+ three encores: Cardoso: Milango, (Think of it as the ‘Well-tempered Clavier’ meets the tango.) a samba and one of the famous pieces for guitar by anonymous, Romance de Amor.

Hong Kong has been fortunate to see Miloš, the young guitarist from Montenego, three times in the space of three years and watch how he has progressed.. His first appearance was another Premiere Performance recital, in 2012. Between the first recital and this one, he performed with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in Rodrigo’s ‘Concerto de Aranjuez.’ I can’t recall if, in his debut, he was relaxed enough to discuss his repertoire with the audience but this night he was very eager to share his thoughts on several of the pieces he was performing. I think it’s a bonus when a performer will talk with the audience and share stories and insights and Miloš continued to do that throughout the programme.

Miloš wears all black but then he got to flash those red-bottomed, Christian Louboutin shoes when he shifted position or walked across the stage. The Goth appearance didn’t interfere at all with his performance which was very good, although not perfect. Several times, there were instances of notes that weren’t cleanly played. Certainly, there was no lack of strength in his fingers nor was there a question of anything being too much of a reach, so I’d speculate on jet lag and a timing issue, one finger arriving at the string a fraction of a second out of synch the other. I’m sure I didn’t hear this in the previous concerts. I’m not worried that it will last or that it is something he can’t fix.

Miloš presented a varied programme that began with Sor’s transcriptions of a charming Mozart theme from The Magic Flute. I like Sor, and anybody who has ever played classical guitar knows this composer but I doubt everyone knows all of his work and this one was new to me.

Before the Regondi piece, he explained to us about this composer’s sad life, that Regondi had been abused by his father and had died quite young. Miloš told us he found the music very moving and it was a meaningful insight for those in the audience who were learning about this composer for the first time.

When I first started listening to classical guitar, the guitarists all made little squeeky noises with the left-hand movements. Not any more they don’t, almost never. It’s a big change in classical technique and probably for the better, right? On a personal note, and completely irrelevant to probably anyone else, I didn’t especially enjoy the tone of the guitar itself, especially in its middle register.

Miloš’s talented, intelligent, personable, young and very attractive. What’s not to like? Hope we see him again in the not too distant future.

Here’s a very interesting and informative documentary about Miloš from British television: (They talk about him as if he’s the GWH, and maybe they feel they need one, when there’s someone like Xuefei Yang who’s crowding the playground.)

This is a very astonishing and ambitious website and a fabulous resource: “A taset of Romance” is #26 at the 4:00 minute mark.

***

Review May 1, 2015

Haeran Hong

Handel’s Fireworks – Hong Kong Philharmonic, guest conductor,

Harry Bicket,guest soloist Haeran Hong, soprano.

8:00 pm, Saturday April 11, 2015 – City Hall Concert Hall – All Handel Programme

Concerto Grosso
Water Music Suite
Interval/Intermission
Handel Arias: Alcina: “Tornami avagheggiar”; Giulio Cesare: “Piangerò, la sorte mia” – “Da tempeste il legno infranto”
Music for the Royal Fireworks

If you need an antidote or perhaps just a respite from Wagner, there’s no one better than Handel. I had started the musical week on Tuesday in Tokyo with Wagner’s Die Walküre on so I was ready for Saturday with Handel. (Reviewed here.) With the glorious exceptions of Bach and Handel, Baroque is some distance from being my favorite type of classical music. I feel fairly safe in saying this isn’t the main staple of the Hong Kong Philharmonic either as I can’t recall ever having attending a programme of Baroque music by them before, with the exception of the Saint Matthew’s Passion last year which was wonderful. I was curious to see how they handled Handel. After hearing this evening’s concert, I would encourage them to return to the safety of the familiar fold.

The listening requirements for Handel are not nearly as demanding and the emotional toll is far less than for Wagner. The bad news is: the orchestra didn’t sound comfortable in this repertoire. There is a delicacy and lightness to the melody and rhythms that was not present at the beginning, but improved over the course of the evening. There’s no nice way to put this: the orchestra sounded ponderous and struggled to keep up with the blistering tempo set by Maestro Becket. Because the Concerto Grosso is for string orchestra, none of the other instruments made an appearance until the second piece which, given the impressive playing of the horns and reeds, may well imply it was the majority of strings who were as fish out of water.

There is good news here too: there were some striking individual performances. The concertmaster, Jing Wang, blew me away. In the almost two years he has been her I had never heard him sound so completely at home as in this repertoire. He played beautifully with sensitivity, verve and alacrity, having no problem with the rapid pace; he was totally in his comfort zone and showed impressive skills in the intricate Baroque stylings that would be intimidating for someone with lesser skill. The tone of his violin also sounded exactly right for this repertoire. This was an outstanding evening for Mr. Wang who shone like a Michael Phelps swimming in a pool of toddlers.
The oboist and the bassoonist also gave it their all and their attitude, passion and precision led to exciting results. They, too, were not undeterred by the brisk pacing and, when called for, they maintained their perfect unity throughout. I especially enjoyed the bassoonist, Benjamin Moermond, his playing was accompanied by his expressive eyebrows travelling up and down as he played. It was adorable.

The horns too did as good a job as I have ever heard them do. This makes for an interesting overall situation where, to mix some metaphors (similes actually), certain parts of the orchestra soared like lofty peaks while others seemed more like a beached pod of whales.

The musical direction of the orchestra has undoubtedly and wisely decided to concentrate on the repertoire where the bulk of the orchestra is comfortable and has the possibility to shine as an ensemble. Occasional forays into the Baroque would be welcome so as to remind us of the hidden brilliance of certain performers.
Outside of the Messiah, the Water Music is quite likely the most famous music Handel wrote. I have listened to this music since childhood and the tunes and rhythms are infectious. It’s possible to enjoy this music even if the standard isn’t perfection and I, for one, or for once, wasn’t obsessing about the fact that it wasn’t. The music carries the listeners along in the irresistible way that water moves us well named!

The second half featured three Handel arias. Hong is a lovely, attractive and young singer who holds considerable promise for greatness but she’s not there yet. Her voice is remarkably agile and she is very adept in the bel canto style, able to make the great trills and leaps typical of this repertoire. What she doesn’t seem to always keep in mind or perhaps isn’t yet able to, is fully understanding that ‘bel canto’ means ‘beautiful singing.’ To have grasped that, a singer cannot fail to move gracefully and elegantly at all times, including long leaps between registers. What we heard instead were some ugly swoops, for example, when going from the ending of ‘piangero,’ the second time, to the high “la sorte mia…” No, no, no! This is where you have to control the breath and then release when exactly centered on the high note. Didn’t happen. That’s what I call a swoop but no doubt there’s a technical term for this and probably in Italian. There were also occasional slides into notes when a singer moves audibly onto the correct pitch. She didn’t do it a lot but I don’t want any. This repertoire is where perfection is possible and therefore required. The good news, is that it is a matter of control that can be improved with continued study and the right vocal coach.

In the faster arias, she had no trouble keeping up with the conductor’s tempo and seemed to enjoy the challenge of singing such complexities at a breathtaking pace. However, at one point in the final aria, I was suddenly listening to Rosina in the Barber of Seville and that’s not good. We lost the essence of Handel and lapsed into Rossini’s Baroque styling. I have never heard such an unusual and distracting interpretation, or lapse, and I would urge Hong to rethink her approach not only vocally but her body language as well. It isn’t playful Rosina and her comic games she’s singing. Whatever Cleopatra is about, happy or otherwise, she’s always deadly serious. The singer must maintain that demeanor or character throughout.

Given Hong’s obvious talent and determination, I have no doubt she will overcome these few technical imperfections and I would be delighted to see again at a later time.

Here is a recording of “piangerò” by the late Lucia Popp, an artist who never slides into a pitch and doesn’t do swoops. Popp’s was the first recording of this aria I ever owned and sometimes you do get lucky and the first really is the best. (There’s another remarkable singer’s version on Youtube, that of Arleen Auger, who is remarkable in her own way but I can’t take such a slooooowwww tempo but if you find it, please think about the breath control required for such long lines.)

Then there’s Elly Ameling, the finest of singers with perhaps the most beautiful voice of all, however, her focus was primarily in the lieder repertoire with almost nothing in opera. This is a rare exception. No swoops here.


Here’s our evening’s vocalist, Haeran Hong, singing another comic opera aria, “Quel guard il cavaliere” by Donezetti. It may be that she is especially suited to the comic repertoire which is a great talent. (No videos available of her singing Handel.)

And here’s the competition. This is a video of an up and coming young bel canto soon-to-be-super star, Julia Lezhneva, with a gorgeous voice, superb technique and flawless delivery singing the final aria of the evening’s programme. Wow!

I can’t resist this. The first aria of the evening sung by the fabulous Sumi Jo in recital. I have been lucky enough to see her in Hong Kong three times. Come back soon, Sumi Jo.

The concert ended with the Royal Fireworks music which was a rousing way to conclude this all Handel evening.

***

Review April 24, 2015

Valkyries ride into Tokyo

Die Walküre by Richard Wagner – Tokyo Opera Spring Festival – Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. 3:00 pm, April 7, 2015.

Die Walküre by Richard Wagner TokyoNHK Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski (conductor) – Waltraud Meier, (Sieglinde), Robert Dean Smith (Sigmund), Catherine Foster (Brünhilda), Elisabeth Kulman (Fricka) – Egils Silins (Wotan), Im Sung Sim (Hunding)

Is there any music more heartbreakingly beautiful in all of opera than Wotan’s Farewell to his daughter, Brünhilde? If there is, I haven’t heard it. (Although there are quite a few runners up.) The music must carry complex emotions to convey what a parent must feel when forced to say goodbye to their child, knowing they will never meet again. Compounding this misery for Wotan, is the knowledge that this parting is of his own doing; he is completely helpless and yet responsible for that as well. Beyond this parental anguish, the music suggests that Wotan, for the first time, is seeing himself as he truly is and what he sees is devastating.

This was the first time I had seen this opera in a concert version. After, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concert version of Das Rheingold, last January, the initial offering in their four year Ring Cycle, I was unwilling to wait a full year to see the second opera, Die Walküre. One of the best things an opera in concert does is to allow the singers the complete freedom to fully express themselves within the role. Not every singer can take full advantage of this opportunity. A performance, with a director and sets and costumes and action and interactions between characters has other important demands that only the most talented of expressive singers can fully deliver through all the encumbrances. Beauty of both voice and technique that shines in concert with an orchestra alone may not be the equal to a great stage presence in full production regardless of how the voice may sound. In this concert, all had beautiful voices with excellent technique.

Without question this was the all-around best-voiced cast that I have seen in Die Walküre this century and going all the way through the 1990s. Does that make this is the best DW I have ever seen? No. An opera in concert can be compared in only a few ways to a staged production. The ways they are different are simply not comparable.

Waltraud Meier – Is there a better Sieglinde? I have seen her do this role twice with the Staatsoper Berlin. (In two of the photos that are shown randomly on this site, you can see her and the Staatsoper Berlin orchestra with Maestro Daniel Barenboim.) In concert, she was unleashed from the absurdities of what purported to be stage direction in that production. She no longer had to worry about sets, or lack thereof, or costumes or visual projections or impossible contortions and she gave it her all. Meier has a mastery over her vocal pallet that must be the envy of many another Wagnerian singer. It was a treat for the audience and I would suspect, that being part of an ensemble as strong as this one, must have been gratifying for her as well.

Robert Dean Smith is a perfectly fine Sigmund. He had no difficulty with any of the notes; there was no strain or wobble, he was never shrill or out of breath, he sang without needing music as was true of all the main characters except Hunding. This is good. He has a pleasant voice in a lighter timbre than some who are currently performing this role. Rather than handsome or dashing, he’s cute and it does take some mental gymnastics to picture him in the heroics associated with this role. I couldn’t quite picture him running through a stormy night forest or rushing into battle against the forces that would destroy a helpless girl but that was completely acceptable in this concert setting and I have seen far less believable Siegmunds on stage. I saw him in a visiting production from Leipzig three or four years ago as Tristan. Smith can sing with almost enough volume to successfully override the orchestra.

Catherine Foster as Brünhilde sang with lovely clear tones and handled notes and words that others have often shrieked and strained over due to the rigors of performance or ravages of overuse. I found her interpretation of Brünhilde delightful, making her acts seem childish and playful which seems in keeping with the story and music but is seldom seen. My only quibble was her decision so show an obvious delight when Wotan agrees to the magic fire. Yes, she had gotten what she had wanted but this fire was a mitigation of a harsh punishment that would banish her forever from her father, her family and all she had ever known and loved. Even getting this magic fire should not have caused her to forget her pain and sorrow. I would have preferred a less obvious undercurrent wherein joy at an anticipated recuse by a heroic Siegfried, is colored with awareness of that loss. I think the music contains both.

Fricka was sung by Elizabeth Kulmann. She had the star voice, ringing, clear, with lovely rich, full and rounded tones, which she used with grace, charm, wit and aplomb to upend Wotan’s machinations and plottings that had been so much self-delusion. She was fully in the part and used her whole body language to make her points. Hers was a very typical portrayal and the music is very compatible with it. My tiny quibble is with the interpretation itself. I believe that it is possible to play a more tender Fricka, one who is angry and betrayed but one who still loves Wotan and believes there is still something between them; a Fricka who sees him as worth rehabilitating.

In Kulmann’s interpretation, as fun as it was, there was no love between them and this reduces the audience’s ability to connect to the character as anything other than as a stereotype. One production I saw did give that unique perspective and I found that interpretation very meaningful. And although Wagner’s music perfectly accentuates the typical harridan approach, surprisingly it also accommodates the more tender interpretation. I don’t know who makes these interpretative decisions in a concert performance. Is it up to each singer or is it collaborative or is it under the control of the conductor? Kulmann had a recital in Tokyo several days after the performance and if I had been able to stay on, I would definitely have been looking for a ticket.

Hunding was performed capably by Im Sung Sim, who was the only one of the cast who used the music stand. This, unfortunately, removed him from the audience to some extent. His voice was clear, deep and powerful. When singing, he radiated an intensity that partnered the words but when not singing he did not always remain in the role. He is a young singer, relatively unfamiliar with the role, and is certainly learning all that is required from an operatic performance in concert in general and this role in particular. He is someone to keep an eye on.

And that leaves Wotan, sung by Egils Silim. He has a superb bass instrument and can sing the registry flawlessly. He has got perfectly, the overly- embattled, caught-up-in-meshes as the wheels are falling off, in-your-face kind of Wotan. It’s just that those attributes and emotions are only a part of what Wotan is and is going through. We really didn’t get any emotional or visual sense of Wotan’s coming face to face with himself, his grief and anguish at punishing his daughter for not killing his son, Siegmund. Her refusal meant Wotan could no longer delegate his dirty work as each of his beloved pawns refused to play their assigned roles.

Wagner’s music shows us the man/god who has just killed his own son, murdered Hunding and is now going to destroy Brünhilde, the child he loves the most. Being a god he might well be aware that, by punishing Brünhilde, he has also finally created that independent hero he has long desired. The character is incredibly conflicted. Be angry by all means, but show Wotan also full of anguish and remorse, feeling bereft and heartbroken and horrified by his own misdeeds. The orchestra was giving us all that but we didn’t see an inkling of it in Silim’s Wotan.

Behind the orchestra and singers, a very large screen showed mostly still images from some production of DW. They weren’t completely still, however, and if they are going to show the doors opening for spring, in Act 1, they certainly ought to have put some blossoms on the bare limbed trees. I would, and imagine the rest of the audience could, have gotten on just fine without this irritating distraction.

The orchestra played flawlessly and Maestro Marek Janowski has a sure interpretive command of this work. It was ideal except for a couple of unexpected phrasings and shadings. They were a slight distraction but were very infrequent, nothing disturbing, nothing major and not when it mattered. I have embedded a video in which Janovski explains many things but one of the particularly interesting portions is when he discusses the difference between an orchestra on stage and an orchestra in the pit during a staged operatic performance.

For the first few years, after learning to love Wagner’s music, Act 1, was my favorite act in all of opera. With time, Act 3 replaced it. The last time I saw it, in 2013, in Berlin, Act 2 changed from being that one in between, to being a significant and beautiful act in its own right. And, maybe that kind of awareness or knowledge is a one-way street. Certainly, I didn’t feel it had retreated from that position.

Tokyo Spring Nomori is to be congratulated for giving us this fine Die Walküre. This presentation was a thoroughly enjoyable, thrilling and hankie-soaking performance.

They’ll be doing Siegfried next spring, hmmmm.

But wasn’t Wagner a bad guy with horrible ideas? How can you listen to him? There are certainly some odious ideas that Wagner espoused but I would argue that he didn’t put any of that into his music. It did take me a while and some careful thinking before I understood that it is possible to (and I now believe completely that one must) separate the art from the artist. The art has to be judged on its own merits. (Likewise, for horrible people liking this art, and making use of it, after the artist is dead.) However, if the artist is living and your support of his or her art will financially or otherwise support them, then each one of us has to make an ethical judgment as to whether we will support them with our dollars or patronage. Wagner is dead and anyone who listens and enjoys his music is not furthering any of his ideas, the good ones or the bad.

Videos – (If you want to know what they are singing when there are no subtitles, you can go here for an English version:)
http://www.rwagner.net/opere/e-t-walkure.html

Waltraud Meier in Act 1 of Die Walküre from La Scala. Ignore, the French subtitles, the out of sync video, the girth of the tenor, and the fact that it cuts off the beginning notes; she’s worth it.

Robert Dean Smith as Siegmund.

I can’t find a really good video representation of Catherine Foster as Brunhilde in Die Walküre. Here is her first appearance in Act 1, apparently taken by an audience member in the farthest back row of the top balcony. I like the comic touch of how she sings this here, and in Tokyo, which gives her that contrary edge, foreshadowing her independence and later disobedience.

Elizabeth Kulmann’s Fricka as she punctures Wotan’s balloon of lies and deceit. I only wish the audio was clearer and since it’s only audio ….

Link to concert version Valery Gergiev conducting, with Bryn Trefel in Leb Wohl (Farewell) sung to Irene Theorin as Brünhilde. Now this is Wotan with complex emotions. IreneThoerin is also very expressive.

Tags: Catherine Foster, Elizabeth Kulmann. Waltraud Meier, Robert Dean Smith, Egils Silins,Wagner, Die Walküre, Janowski, NHK Symphony

Janovski conducts the most famous music from this opera, “The Ride of the Valkyries”

Janovski explains his thinking about a Wagner concert project in Berlin. This is a meaningful and intelligent discussion on the role of the orchestra in Wagner. He also discusses the modern trend of direction and I admit I agree with his difficulties with the modern approach.

 ***

Review April 17, 2015

bolshoi jewels

Bolshoi Ballet – Jewels, 7:00 PM March 29, 2015 – Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre – Hong Kong Arts Festival.Bolshoi Orchestra conducted by Music Director, Pavel Sorokin

I’m not a dancer but I love it. For me, at its finest, ballet is one of the most compelling of all the arts showing us what the human body can do at its loveliest limits. The Bolshoi is one of the greatest of ballet companies. It’s a mystery to me why and how ballet captured the Russian soul but the world can’t help but be grateful. The 2015 Bolshoi is very fine indeed although perhaps not quite at the level of the group I saw on tour many years ago when it was a complete revelation: ‘So that’s what a corps de ballet is for. Why, it’s beautiful!”

The ballets I have seen have mostly been narratives. Though it’s always been a bit difficult for me to follow the story line step by step. I’d often groused that it was as if the choreographer hadn’t listened to the music. Later I learned that traditionally, the choreographer wasn’t paying attention to the music as they and the composer worked separately. The ballet “Jewels” is one of George Ballanchine’s ballets. It is abstract and there is no story line. Each of the three acts represents a different jewel.

Emeralds – cool, green, suggestive of flowing water and gentle waves set to the music of Faure. The cast of this act is two leading couples, a pas de trois and ten women. The star of the emerald sea was Kristina Kretova who danced partnered and also had a solo turn. She was lovely and graceful but then that’s the beauty of the Bolshoi. They all are graceful. Unlike with most companies where you can spend the whole evening trying to find even one among the dancers who is. What a joy. Because there’s no story, the audience is free to impose one or to just go with the beautiful flow.

Rubies –modern ballet with jazzy costumes and fiery steps set to the music of Stravinsky. I have seen other versions on Youtube which are deadly serious. The Bolshoi’s production played to the lighthearted and humorous side and it fit the music perfectly with no loss of virtuosity. The featured dancers were Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyascheslav Lopatkin, both leading soloists with the company in the role of the Leading Couple. Ekaterina Shipulina, principal dancer was the Soloist.

Diamonds/Brillante – This, as can be surmised from the name, was all about flash and shine and dazzle. The virtuosity level was at its highest with Ekaterina Krysanova , Semyon Chudin, both principal dancers with the company. This is where more traditional steps made their appearance and one might imagine this as part of narrative ballet as it is reminiscent of a traditional pas de deux.

George Balanchine is notorious for preferring skeletal female bodies, I was quite pleased to see that these dancers look to be human and beautiful for it. Unfortunately, there was too much lady lifting by the male dancers in this ballet with a very limited amount of leaping, jumping and spins.

Here is a trailer for the Bolshoi featuring Emeralds and Rubies with the same sets and costumes I saw.

Brilliante or Diamonds is the final act where the choreographer’s and dancers’ art are truly vibrant.

Review April 10, 2015

Kavakos PaceKavakos & Pace, 8:00 PM March 27, 2015 – Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall (HK Arts Festival)
Leonidas Kavakos, violin, Enrico Pace, piano

Schubert, Sonata for violin and Piano in A, Op 162, D 574, Grand Duo
Beethoven, Sonata for violin and piano No 10 in G, Op 96

Interval/Intermission

Korngold, Suite Much Ado about Nothing, Op 11
Richard Strauss, Sonata for violin and piano in E-flat, Op 18

Reviewed March 27 and 28th

KAVAKOS: A master at his craft isn’t about technical competency or accuracy, which is a given, but rather the degree of finesse, and phrasing that connects to and maintains the musical integrity throughout. There was a discrepancy between before and after the intermission. Kavakos wouldn’t seem to have a Schubertian soul or at least not that night. The Beethoven by contrast was fine, if not especially memorable it was not at all disappointing although perhaps not inspired. That it was not became clearer in the second half of the programme when the famed violinist really shone. From his body language it was clear he was fully engaged. We could see that this music moved him, physically and emotionally, and he in turn brought the music to life. The results were impressive.

PACE – From the very first note of the very first piece, this man came to play. He was comfortable with all of the composers and it was impossible to tell which was his favorite. His playing was superb on all levels. I would love to see him in a recital or as soloist with an orchestra. I am certain he would not disappoint in any repertoire.

KORNGOLD – It was a rare opportunity to hear Korngold and the artists are to be commended for introducing him, possibly for the first time to some in the audience, through this charming and interesting work.

STRAUSS – I enjoyed this sonata and was taken by how different it was from other of Strauss’s works I am more familiar with, e.g., operas, lieder and orchestral. I couldn’t have guessed Strauss if asked.

There were three unnamed encores. One was some sort of Gypsy or Hungrian dance, the second was Spanish Dance No. 5 by Granados and the third was a bravura violin piece possibly by Paganini or Fritz Kreisler.

I wasn’t able to find these two artists playing any of these pieces but you can find them on YouTube playing other pieces and you can find the pieces performed by other performers.

Review April 3

Cassandra WilsonCassandra Wilson, Coming Forth by Day: A Celebration of Billie Holiday – March 22, 2015, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall – Presented by the Hong Kong Arts Festival

It’s probably hard to tell from what’s on this blog so far but before moving to HK, I probably had seen more jazz concerts, if we include club gigs, than any other type of music. But you can pretty much count on the fingers of one hand, plus a couple extra, the number of jazz singers I have seen: Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan, Gloria Lynn, Nancy Wilson (no relation to Cassandra), and (words fail me) Nina Simone. Maybe having a singer play a piano gives more dynamics to a programme but then, Nina Simone didn’t need a piano to be phenomenal. There was also the fabulous Oscar Brown, Jr. Unlike the others, I saw him many times. And that’s it.

Cassandra Wilson did what I guess jazz singers usually do: she stood there and sang. She’s an attractive woman with a rich, honeyed voice with which she makes opulent and pleasing sounds primarily in the lower registers to great mellow effect. Each song was mellower than the one before. Her occasional forays into higher registers were great and I’d have liked to have heard more.

This concert was entitled “Coming Forth by Day” and is a tribute to Billie Holiday whose birth centenary is April 7 (same birthday as Jackie Chan). One of the most notable features of Billie Holiday is her singing style which was as clear and direct as I have ever heard. Every word and syllable of Billie Holiday are scalpel sharp and filled with deep emotional intensity and sincerity.

I appreciate what Cassandra Wilson is attempting to do and she does mention Billie Holiday at the beginning of her programme and that will surely raise new awareness of what a treasure she was. Unfortunately that was all Ms Wilson had to say other than to introduce her band members, who were excellent and very mellow. I think the audience would have enjoyed learning about the songs themselves and how they related to Holiday’s life. I know I would have.

Wilson is not simply a cover artist. She reinterprets so that other artists’ songs become her own. This is a wonderful skill that gives us new ways to think of old standards, even if not of Billie Holiday, if one remembered to think of Billie Holiday at all during the rest of the concert. Since this was supposed to be a tribute to Billie Holiday, shouldn’t we have heard some of Holiday’s most famous songs, such as “What’s New” or “God Bless the Child”? Not singing “Strange Fruit” in Hong Kong makes sense as the text and context belongs squarely in the United States of America.

Below is clip of Wilson singing Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”*.

  • Disclaimer: The “Harvest Moon” album has the song “Natural Beauty” which was recorded live January 23, 1992 in Portland Oregon and I was in the audience.

Billie Holiday!

The ones I saw and loved.

Gloria Lynn

Nancy Wilson (this is the first song I heard Nancy Wilson sing on the radio)

Oscar Brown, Jr. I couldn’t find my favorite songs or live performances but this will give you an idea.

Nina Simone Everything she does is amazing.

Review March 27

tsars bride cover2The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky Korsakov ­ – the Bolshoi Opera, March 21, 2015, Hong Kong Cultural Centre (HK Arts Festival)
That concludes the easy part.

Highs:

  • Russian singers: Venera Gimadieva, soprano, as Marfa, is a fine actor and an exquisite singer, with a lovely voice and nearly flawless technique. Her mad scene made me think what a thrilling Lucia she would be. It would be an absolute pleasure to see/hear her in anything.
  • Alexander Neumenko, bass, as Sobakin, Marfa’s father. I adore Russian basses and when he hit and held on to that low whatever note, my toes tingled.
  • Tugan Sokhiev, conductor – Maestro Gennadi Rozhdestvensky was indisposed and we wish him a swift recovery. Maetro Sokhiev did an excellent job in his stead which suggests that the Bolshoi will long continue to be blessed with great talent.
  • Stage direction and set designs: based on Fydor Fedorovsky’s original design; Alyona Pikalova, set designer – The sets were gorgeous, larger than life and together with the intelligent directing of Julia Pevzner, propelled the plot forward.
  • Rarely performed part of the Russian repertoire outside Russia. It’s great when audiences have the chance to see something new to them.
  • Themes –Patriarchy and its oppression of women. The male characters are amoral, self-centered, or downright brutes. Even the father feels his daughter’s mortal illness is meant to punish him. In contrast, the two main female characters express true emotion, have the ability to love and are shown as complex human characters. An additional theme is the hideous cost of power and hypocrisy. Good on you, Mr Rimsky-Korsakov!
  • Programme notes gave excellent discussions of the opera itself as well as an in depth interview with the stage director and set designer.

Lows:

  • Act 1 ‑ Everything and everyone, orchestra excepted.
  • Plot incomprehensibility probably worsened by cuts and missing scenes. The evil doctor is almost non-existent in this production.
  • Unclear character motivation ‑ not uncommon in many operas but here the music did not supply those emotional undercurrents the lyrics and action lacked.
  • Inconsistencies – admittedly fewer than in some operas but I will never accept making liars of the singers. One example, Marfa is said to be lying ‘on the floor’ while we see her in a chair. How hard to make this match?
  • Problematic subtitles – Not being a Russian speaker/reader this is based on having watched the Mariinsky production and my understanding of English. I know that the Bolshoi’s ‘gay activities’ is not an acceptable rendition of the Mariinsky’s ‘rape and pillage.’ Later, at the break, a Russian friend said, the translation was terrible.
  • Programme Notes didn’t match the production, for example, in Act III, it says, ‘Malyuta appears with the boyars and proclaims …that Marfa is to be the Tsar’s wife.’ But in the opera translation we saw, Marfa is to be the wife of the Tsar’s son, which kind of makes more sense.

This is not the top of my operatic favorites list, not even my favorite Russian opera but I was glad to have seen it and Gimadieva was priceless.

In the video below, Gimadieva is singing Juliet’s aria from Gounod’s Faust in a concert of young singers of the Bolshoi. (I couldn’t find her singing Marfa.)

There’s a highlight trailer of the Bolshoi’s Tsar’s Bride with the some of the same cast, including Gimiedeva where you can see the sets and costumes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNt8BfqLoEo

And when it comes to Russian voices and basses, this long ago version of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” is still the best there is although you can really hear them much better on the LP version.

Review March 20

DudamelLAPO


Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
, March 20, 8:00 PM Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

WOW! The Hong Kong Arts Festival has hit another one out of the park. (A metaphor unknown to Hong Kong as baseball pretty much doesn’t exist here).

In my first review, below, I said the Staatskapelle Dresden was tightly under the command of their conductor, Christian Thielemann. Tonight brought a different experience and was a first for me. I got absolutely no sense of tight grip or complete control. There was no external being, the conductor, directing his orchestra. Tonight the orchestra and conductor were a flowing stream of music in complete unity, one single being. What a treasure Maestro Dudamel is. One more gift to humanity from Venezuela – a true wonder conductor!

The evening began with City Noir by John Adams which was composed in 2009. According to the programme notes, this work was inspired by “Kevin Starr’s “Dream” books…Adams wanted to evoke the 1940s and early 1950’s and the cinema of that time with characters like in a David Lynch film.” I can’t say I quite got all that but I enjoyed the lively ride.

The Adam’s piece brought several rarities to the symphonic concert hall. Seven percussionists, not including the pianist. More than a dozen percussion instruments, some I’ve never seen before and some I’ve seen but not with an orchestra. The choreography for getting this percussionist to that drum and then back to the large gongs and then dodging between two or three fellow players also going for different instruments was quite exciting and sitting in the balcony meant I could enjoy it all. Can you imagine, both a xylophone and marimbas? The tympanist was in an almost enclosed circle of drums. And to top it all off, there was a complete jazz drum set.

After the intermission, we were given a fabulous interpretation of the well-known Dvorak Symphony 9, in e minor “From the New World” which is surely everybody’s favorite. The second movement held the most surprises with its exquisite phrasing and tonal constellations in the most delicate shadings and hues. It was like hearing a completely new piece albeit one with close affinities to something previously heard which was even then in process of being overwritten. If I’m lucky, and just being here proves I am, I’ll never forget this movement for the rest of my life.

Two encores and a partial standing ovation. FYI, standing ovations are extremely rare in Hong Kong classical music concerts. In more than 10 years, I may have seen as many as five. I wonder what that’s all about because some of the greatest performers in the world play at their finest here.

March 16

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Pianist escapes straightjacket onstage

Mikhail Rudy, March 15, 3:00 pm, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

“Chagall & Rudy” attempts to fuse music and film outside of the standard movie music format. Mikhail Rudy brings Marc Chagall’s ceiling, painted in Paris’s Palace Garnier, to life. The images are accompanied by the music that inspired, and are reflected in, Chagall’s images.

The first half of the programme is quite different, however, and begins with Mikhail Rudy performing the music onstage while we see scenes of Rudy playing in a film version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Unfortunately for several reasons, this didn’t really work. I have been told I am too texty so if you want to know why I thought that, post a comment and let’s do it there.

If the first part put our pianist in a straightjacket, the second half is where he escaped. As with all escapes, like art, the artist must struggle to reach intermediate stages of progress. The second half showed filmic images that were animations based on Marc Chagall’s sketches and paintings for the Garnier Theatre, home of the Paris Opera and Ballet. Here the music expanded to show a wide range of expression. The film closely followed Chagall’s images in harmony with the music.

Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice was first. The lovely music and the animations of Chagall’s figures gave us unobtrusive and gentle movements. This was followed by Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397, which was accompanied by various images from the great ceiling. This was my first time to hear this work and I liked it very much and I am not a Mozart person. It was interesting to hear the hurdy gurdy-like tune from the piano, reminiscent of the same instrument reproduced earlier in Petrushka. I was also surprised to hear an iconic Tristan and Isolde chord coming from Mozart. Hmmm.

The straight jacket was continuing to loosen.

The next piece was Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde.  This is such an emotionally expressive piece of music and with it the straight jacket was almost completely undone saving only that one last lock that soon would fall. The images were abstract, meaning no extraneous images. This piece may have started out with the color red, but I was startled to have Tristan and Isolde shown in shades of pink or green or any pastels for that matter. These colours are not the ones we are accustomed to seeing in modern productions. This work was filled with passion and all the tonal colours of the emotional pallet were present and suffused this piece. At last, we had the full beauty of this fusion project.

Rudy’s freer interpretation continued through the Debussy to the end which was Ravel’s La valse. (Hearing the Straussian antecedents of La Valse, it is a great blessing that modern copyright laws did not exist in those days.)

There were three encores which consisted of the lovely Tchaikovsky Barcarolle, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and finally a Chopin Nocturne. Rudy’s obvious relief in being out of the straight jacket showed in his playing, his facial expressions and in his body language. Bravo!

Many in the audiences may be learning about Chagall’s art for the first time, others may gain a new appreciation of it. I applaud Rudy’s dedication and his willingness to go through this great escape for us in order to bring greater awareness of Chagall’s work.

For those interested in knowing more about the Mozart Fantasia, I found this video master class given by the great pianist Andres Schiff.

Review March 13, 2015 (1 Theatre review)

Pride and Prejudice performed by The Gate Theatre – March 8, 2015, 7:30 pm – Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts Lyric Theatre

The play is based on Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. It was adapted by James Maxwell and directed by Alan Stanford. The cast and director did a fine job, and one way you can tell is when the break comes, you are surprised and and then shocked to discover that over an hour and a half has passed. This story is not amongst my favorites from the realm of literature nor was this particular production one that will forever remain impressed upon my memory and I am one who does remember performances from years ago that I would be very lucky indeed, if ever I should see another that pleased me nearly as well. See what happens when you get caught up in the spell of Jane Austen’s language? The bonds that had inhibited the use of multisyllabic vocabulary are sundered and dusty words and convoluted phrases, seldom if ever used heretofore, emerge unbidden.

The biggest disappointment was Mr Darcy who simply held no charisma for me and without that quality, Lizzy’s attraction to him is not really believable. I could only think with pained regret that Laurence Olivier had once played this same role. Several of the characters had their quirks raised to the level of camp, including Lydia Bennet, Mary Bennet and Lady Catherine. Jane was gracious and serene while Lizzy was sweet and charming. Her disdain for Darcy was evident in her words but her barbs were delivered honey-coated which did not create any great suspense as to the outcome. Perhaps, given the widespread familiarity with the story, that most audiences would be expected to have, keeping the emotional tone so as to preserve uncertainty in the outcome was deemed unnecessary.

The sets were minimal and adequate and seemed to fit the requirements for the most part. I would have liked the sets to have distinguished more the various class distinctions that is an important aspect of Austen’s novel. The set was able to make good use of the relatively small stage, and action took place from side to side with little front to back movement as they had chosen to cut the back of the stage off by a large backdrop of the countryside. The set did not interfere with the production and wasn’t distracting except for the chair, that actress Lorna Quinn had to keep raising her arm over in order to get past it, during the curtain calls.

The directing made good use of the stage configuration, used the actors well and had no bizarre quirks, gimmicks or inanities that has become all too frequent in the theater these days.

As I said, I enjoyed it.

New Review March 9, 2015 (1 music-non classical)
(All reviews will appear on the Review page. Occasionally a review will appear on the home page as well.)

Barefoot Divas – March 7, 2015, 8:00 pm – Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre

A lovely combination of women’s voices and indigenous cultures from Down Under: Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. The gave us something very different from the typical lyrics of popular music and yet they sounded closer to a folk-pop fusion with both electric guitars and acoustic than to indigenous or traditional music of their lands.

Each of the six artists, Whirimako Black, Ursula Yovich, Merinia, Ngaiire, and Maisey Rika have their own strengths and musical inclinations but one thing they all have in common is using their talent to combinine uncompromising feminism with surprisingly joyous music. Even when their words were angry, “Who are you to ask me to play nice/Who are you to ask me to pay to sacrifice,” (Ngaiire) a purity of heart and tenderness showed through. I was much impressed with this as I come from the land where rage reigns supreme. They, instead, kept their music as a healing tonic through which their cultural dignity shown through, irrespective of travails.

Although they did perform together to some extent, the each sang their own songs independently, meaning the biggest drawback was the short length of the programme leaving the audience wanting more from each of these talented and unique women.

Learn more: http://barefootdivas.com.au/

Seong-Jin Cho, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Friday, March 6, 2015, 8:15 pm

seong-Jin Cho

Not in a Korean Boy Band

And aren’t we lucky he isn’t. He certainly has the looks to fit right in, and a loyal following of Korean girls who flew to Hong Kong for his performance. But this young man is one of the most talented classical pianists I have ever heard and I have been listening and attending piano recitals for a very long time. I have heard many in the same hall, most of whose names I have forgotten but I will remember Seong-Jin Cho.

All the pianists who go on world tours have to be very good, otherwise they will stay home and become music teachers or go into banking. Among those who tour the world, there are a few who are great. I feel so lucky to have been in Hong Kong and so many. Nevertheless, all great things are not equally great and performers may not have the same level of accomplishment in every aspect of playing.

Some are brilliant technicians who can play every note with perfection. No note will be missed or finger misplaced no matter how fast. The is certainly true of Cho.

Others are consummate musicians with respect to their musical sensibilities as expressed in their phrasing and tonal coloring. There are fewer who have both the technical ability and the musicality. Cho does.  Being technically proficient yet lacking musicality is more common than those who don’t listen to much classical music might think and is akin to being a technically superb dancer but not being graceful. Technique can be taught but not musicality or grace. It’s a rare wonder when we encounter them both in a singular performer.

His phrasings are intelligent, perceptive, interesting and spot on as he brings out the  emotions underlying the piece.

The Mozart Sonata in B-flat, K281, he brought out all the playfulness and spontaneity that exists in the piece. A playful smile could be seen to suffuse his face throughout those passages. He looked to be thoroughly enjoying the work and, surprisingly for me, who is Mozart challenged, I did too.

He also has the kind of dynamic range someone playing at this level is expected to display. His tempos ranged from very brisk to more leisurely without compromising on clarity and expressiveness.

Not every great pianist has the ability to work right and left hands seamlessly so that neither line is lost or subsumed in the other. I wondered if Cho is left-handed to try and explain what I was hearing because I have rarely heard a left hand played more clearly, with more articulation in perfect balance with the right. I could follow his left-hand playing and recognize its contributions to the overall composition throughout each piece regardless of temp, dynamics or melodic phrasing without sacrificing the work as a whole. Phenomenal!

Everything about the two Schubert Impromptus was a delight as he again gave a little smile. This piece exhibits more gravitas and maturity than the Mozart with more complex emotions and depth of feeling but this young man did not falter in probing those depths.

Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes No, 10 was a further exploration of the technical side. The transcendental etudes were developed by Liszt to enhance his own pianistic skills and certainly technique was on display, both by the artist and of the composer. He exhibited a deft touch and much skill and was certainly the envy of the man sitting beside me who just shook his head, not in censure but in amazement.

The second half of the programme was all Chopin and what a dazzling tour de force it was. From the Ballade No.2 in F, Op 38, to the Piano Sonata no.2 in b-flat minor, Op 35, to the Scherzo No. 2 in b-flat minor, Op 31 we were in the presence of a non-stop virtuosic extravaganza.  This is not to say that it was all flair and no nuance or all bravura and no tenderness. That would be entirely incorrect. I was especially struck by how he played the Marche Funebre: Lento which is familiar to many who know very little classical music. It is somber music but I liked that he played it with a brisker tempo than the usual that for me often drags. Cho infused it with great dignity and seriousness without being sentimental or ponderous.

He ended the concert with two encores, both Chopin which he did not introduce. I believe the first encore was a Chopin Waltz and I know the other was the famous Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. His performance was worthy of the highest praise and anymore superlatives would debase the verbal currency.

Tonight was a bravo performance and surely will be one of the highlights, if not the highlight of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Sometimes the best just isn’t good enough
Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Christian Thielemann, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday, February 28, 2015- 6:00 pm.

There is no doubt that this is one of the finest orchestras anywhere. The sound, the sound, the sound is simply remarkable. The incredible breath control of the horns is incomparable. I have never heard a better oboe. The combination of the skill of the players and the craftsmanship of the instruments cannot be overstated. Words like limpid, crystalline, glittering and brilliant come to mind when describing the tonal quality that is produced by the most skilled ensemble players, the best crafted instruments, and finest musicianship you will ever hear.

Maestro Thielemann is a consummate and meticulous conductor who has trained his orchestra to react instantly to his every command. He has created a unison that makes the orchestra respond as a single instrument and is surely the envy of orchestras the world over. The silences were beyond golden. (As an aside, the audience is to be congratulated for not daring to emit a single cough during the pauses.) In addition, the extended notes spun out well past the point that seemed humanly possible to enter the realm of eternity and bespoke of the truly divine which was especially apt for the first piece, Liszt’s Orpheus, Symphonic Poem #4. Orpheus, being the god of music, has here received a tribute that itself belongs to the realm of the heavens. This approach was exactly what the piece required. It will surely be difficult to listen to this by any other orchestra.

This approach was exactly the opposite of what was needed for the second piece, Wagner’s Siegfried’s Idyll. The extended notes and expanding pauses worked to undermine the elements that make this piece so special. Instead of an inspiring gift filled with ardor, gratitude and passion we have ethereal. Instead of a husband and father’s loving offering to his wife and newborn son, we are lingering in the realm of Orpheus and the gods. Instead of a lover’s offering of joy and ecstasy we have an exercise in splendid detachment.

I pictured a anatomist, world renowned, brilliantly dissecting and laying out every organ and sinew, bone and ligament in perfect order. Fabulous, yes. But the body’s still dead. A master clockmaker who has spread before him all the matchless materials, glittering jewels and handcrafted wheels and cogs of a one of a kind watch. Wonderful workmanship, a pleasure to see but I can’t use it. Without all its pieces fitted together and running correctly, it is just an exercise in showmanship.

After the interval (intermission) they played Ein Heldenleben, by Richard Strauss. All the aspects that worked in the first piece and let down the second, came back to life to make a meaningful statement in an excellent and intelligent rendition that truly depicted the heroic life.

The encore was the Interlude to Act 3 of Lohengrin. With its livelier tempo, it was certainly more enjoyable an interpretation of Wagner than the earlier Idyll. A better match for the music, but still too bright for my tastes. It gave new insight to the old saying, “not all that glitters is gold.”
topHagen Quartet20151006_214726https://hksounds.wordpress.com/reviews/#IT

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