Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Swan Lake

Date: October 25, 2019
Company: Hong Kong Ballet
Choreography: John Meehan, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Siegfried: Chan Chun Wai
Queen: Wang Qingxin
Act 1 pas de quatre: Gao Ge, Kim Eunsil, Li Lin, Shen Jie
Von Rothbart: Garry Corpuz
Odette/Odile: Ye Feifei
Big Swans: Jessica Burrows, Gao Ge, Wang Qingxin, Zhang Xuening
Little Swans: Kim Eunsil, Peggy Lai, Amber Lewis, Yang Ruiqi
Russian Princess: Vanessa Lai
Neapolitan Princess: Kim Eunsil
Escort of Neapolitan Princess: Shen Jie
Hungarian Princess: Jessica Burrows
Spanish Princess: Zhang Xuening

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Faycal Karoui, conductor

 

Hong Kong Ballet’s 19/20 season continues with ballet’s ultimate romantic classic, Swan Lake, in a choreography by John Meehan. Chan Chun Wai, a Guangdong-born principal at The Houston Ballet, guest starred as the Prince, while Ye Feifei, Hong Kong Ballet’s principal, starred as Odette/Odile. Chan’s incredible lower body strength, primed for gorgeous fouettés, enabled the gyroscopic madness that he unleashed towards the end of Act 3. Technically, Chan is a master of his trade: his jetés were springy and swift, with airborne time maximized at the split and landing as soft as feather touching the ground. His acting, which by no means is faulty or inadequate, could benefit a great deal more by shaping his arms (and fingers!) with more artistic acumen. Ye Feifei was more expressively convincing as Odile than as Odette – her black swan was fiery, almost cunning, while her white swan seemed more ready to feign than to ooze pain and suffering. Technically, Ye Feifei was masterful, with full control of the repertory steps, and was mindful of her lines in front of the audience. Disaster loomed when her Act 3 pirouettes started slowly – and certainly not helped by the doubles that she planned to do and did anyway – but she willed her way to the rest of them, accelerating with great core strength and, perhaps more critically, even greater mental determination. Her feat was wildly applauded, and deservedly so.

Shen Jie began the evening horrendously in the Act 1 pas de quatre – a set piece not particularly difficult for either of the men, but one that, if Meehan’s concoction was to be visibly pleasing, required synchronization of the both of them, especially when both were doing tours. Shen Jie landed nearly all of his tours late, with *horrors* slanting shoulders, and he seemed visibly dazed at the end of the pas de quatre sequence. His performance as the escort of Kim Eunsil’s Neapolitan Princess in Act 3 was much more artistically pleasing, flanked and assisted by Kim’s flowing body lines and picture-perfect turns – so much so that the stage chemistry between the escort and princess overshadowed, and perhaps even violated, the story line of a princess attempting to woo a disinterested prince, not a princess smitten all over her escort. Amidst all that obfuscation of the story line, and a choreography that felt rather deflated and uninspired when juxtaposed against the combustible trumpets in the pit, Kim stood out as a dancer equipped with both technical prowess and artistic sensibility, and ready for greater roles to come.

The little swans quartet of Kim Eunsil, Peggy Lai, Amber Lewis, Yang Ruiqi was probably the luxury casting – and highlight – of the evening, with each of them absolutely focused, and all of them moving as one body. Synchronized neck bends, balancés in simple harmony – no minute details were left unattended. Vanessa Lai, as Russian princess, gave a fine performance that was, alas, obscured by her escorts who were busy turning and jumping themselves all around her. The number as a whole felt under-rehearsed, with the male escorts lacking both full awareness of their spatial relationships with each other and commitment in their steps. Jessica Burrows, returning to the Company in a prominent role after a short sabbatical, was a fine, passionate Hungarian princess. Zhang Xuening, as Spanish princess, hinted ever so slightly, with her crowd-pleasing performance, that she was mature enough as a dancer to carry the Company as Kitri.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta gave a mixed performance. The violin solos were fantastic, as was the trumpet’s crisp double-tonguing lunacy in the Neapolitan dance. But overall, the pit felt sleepy for much of Act 1, and when rhythms and energy finally picked up thereafter, the orchestra sounded under-motivated.

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Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky

Date: August 26, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Schoenberg – Violin Concerto Op. 35
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)

 

Schoenberg’s violin concerto is as much a violin concerto as a concerto for violin and orchestra. Wind solos often dominate, intermittently receiving from, and passing on the melodic line to, the solo violin. Percussive instruments also often rise to the fore, with long, prominent lines of melodic and rhythmic significance intertwined with the solo violin. The fabric of the sound palette is thus all the more scrumptious and exquisite, when the solo violin is paired with a capable orchestra. Such was very much the case here. Whether it was Mathieu Dufour picking up the melodic train with some exquisite playing, or Albrecht Mayer handling runaway notes with aplomb, or Franz Schindlbeck dancing between violin lines with rampaging xylophone solos, everything was audibly accessible, and treated with great care and diligence.

Kopatchinskaja was in this evening a feisty performer, radiating warmth and energy through her confident body language and the occasional dollop of friendly smile. With this Schoenberg, impeccable technique and boundless confidence were a given, and were plentifully on display here; otherwise, some other piece would have been heard. Schoenberg’s lines sang all evening: the lines surely did not, nor were they intended by Schoenberg to, resolve to a definitive somewhere; but the music never stood still, but instead steadfastly aiming to go forward, if only vaguely somewhere. On execution, if Hilary Hahn’s famed treatment of the score was akin to a Joan Miró with finely delineated, abstract strokes, Kopatchinskaja’s was that of a Jackson Pollock, with seemingly hysterical but deliberate dancing patterns.

Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky was clean and clear, with singing melodic lines anchored with solid rhythmic tensions below. Solo winds were given ample space to inspire and fly; strings painted with such broad strokes as to remind us of vast oceans in far-flung corners of the Earth. Tchaikovsky’s dynamic swelling and swooning unfurled with due care. Pacing was just a tad on the swift end of things, especially in the final movement; other than a few passages that felt rather rushed, the overall product was a triumph of coherence and fine structure.

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Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Berg, Beethoven

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Kwangchul Youn (bass)

 

Ushering the Berlin Philharmonic into the Petrenko era was a series of Beethoven 9 concerts, with two concerts in Berlin followed by stints at successive European summer festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. This review from Salzburg was therefore Petrenko’s third concert as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. The program featured two works that could not be more contrasting in mood and nature: that of Berg, a plot of humanity’s despair and disintegration; and that of Beethoven 9, humanity’s hymn for universal brotherhood.

The Berg’s score, in the hands of an average orchestra, could feel weighty and muddled. But here, instrumental lines flowed in mid-air, with rhythms of four against three and two against three crisscrossing each other, like a feisty swarm of butterflies fluttering their wings vibrantly, yet cleanly and without touching each other. A good example was in the Rondo, with the music in reference to the escape plot to bring Lulu to Paris. Lulu is pretending to be an invalid, and the music that accompanies her act is lightweight, borderline comical. The woodwind counts in two and plays in triplets of notes, while the piano counts in three and plays triplets. The music was moving so quickly that the sequence would have been easily missed. But here, the Berliner’s execution was clean and clear, with rhythms held aloft in a delicious call and response. Another good example was how each long line of the Act 2 trombones, often as anchor or trailer to bright trumpet moments, never seemed muddled. Their exhibition was a masterclass of rhythmic diligence and persuasive phrasing.

Marlis Petersen, as Lulu, gave an impassioned performance. Her voice was suitably prepared at her entrance, as if she had been warming up her voice and singing Lulu’s part anyway while the Suite was in motion. Her diction was clear; and her delivery was supple.

If the ambiguously resolution of the last chords of Berg was intent to sink the audience hearts, the latter piece’s beginning fifths by Beethoven, if purely by its embryonic and yet-to-be-shaped intention, did not immediately prove to repeal the former. It was not until the triple forte section, when the third was finally introduced, that there was no longer any doubt about how, after Berg’s total repudiation of humanity, the evening was about to be rehabilitate. What came after was a rebuilding, chord by chord, layer by layer. Petrenko was patient, taking his time through the first three movements to build up motions, occasionally suppressing them just enough so as to enable a long arch leading to the fourth movement’s climactic end.

The Schreckensfanfare, approached with an unrelenting fury, ruptured the tension built heretofore. The double basses’ introduction of the title theme was so united in intonation, color and clarity, as if the basses were forged into one giant instrument. Tempo picked up slowly with briskness, in a statement of an increasingly vibrant life, even flirting slightly with the rushed side of things, as if to illustrate the vivacity in human emotion. But where the orchestra seemed to be juicing just above comfort, its sound came across more as confidently urgent than blindly hard-driven. When the proceedings got hot, musicians cooled down by playing farther behind the baton, most evidently by Emmanuel Pahud’s solo at the poco ritenente, just before the baritone’s first entrance.

Petrenko was not the only one making a prominent debut on this occasion. Benjamin Forster, who replaced the retiring Rainer Seegers as solo timpanist, made a glorious debut as solo timpanist, in this all-important part of the instrument’s classical repertoire. His playing style was minimalist and scrupulously efficient. And he seemed shy when Petrenko singularly called him out during the extended and thunderous applause.

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Orchestral music

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Fischer/Jussen and Jussen: Mozart

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Stiftung Mozarteum Grosser Saal, Salzburg.

Mozart – Symphony No. 34, KV 338
Mozart – Concerto for Two Pianos, KV 365
Mozart – Symphony No. 38, KV 504

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg

Ádám Fischer, conductor
Lucas Jussen and Arthur Jussen (piano)

 

This late morning matinee concert was delightful, not only because of the overall quality of the performance but because, on this Sunday morning with crisp air and blue sky, this was one of the few Mozart-only concerts in the entire Festival. Fischer was an animated conductor, but not merely aesthetically: the orchestra reacted with each beating of his baton, whether a tempo pickup, a long-planned crescendo, or that sudden subito piano. Melodically, the oboe pair’s series of harmonic counterpoints in the first movement was delicious, warm and airy. The Jussen brothers had a disastrous start in the piano concerto for four hands: in the middle of the first movement, an unknown beeper started to cause some confusion, if not between the pianists or within the orchestra, then certainly with the audience, in which many angry heads were frantically looking for the offending culprit. No one accepted fault, but the beeping died down eventually. The Jussens held fort, but the orchestra’s output seemed somewhat stranded, in terms of confidence, amidst all the confusion. The second movement began with glaringly constricted oboes and smudged horns, but order was soon restored when the pianos intervened. The roam to finish was resolute and strong, and the Jussens rewarded a ferocious ovation with a triptych from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, Op. 22. Le bal (#12) stood out particularly with the Jussens taking great care of, and having fun while hacking away at, the dancing rhythms and flowing melodic lines. After intermission, Fischer led a fine treatment of the Prague. Brass glimmered like lush summer willow, while woodwinds nourished their lines with great care, like butterflies picking nectar elegantly away. The pictorial reminded the audience what a great day it was in Salzburg, even if the music was not programmatic in its intent. The overall sound inside the Mozarteum was fantastic, with just enough reverberation to sound warm but not too much to muddle.

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Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntyre

Date: June 2, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Ratmansky – Le Carnaval des Animaux
Wheeldon – Rush
McIntyre – A Day in the Life

The penultimate performance of the Hong Kong Ballet’s 17/18 season, in the evening of June 2, was notable more for a teary-eyed video tribute to Liang Jing, the Company’s retiring senior ballet master, than for the dancing. That was not to say the dancing was sub-par – on the contrary, much joy could be culled from tidbits of individual performances throughout the evening. On the whole, however, the evening’s triple bill of modern choreography labored steadfastly forward like a transcontinental train without generating the sort of blood-boiling excitement one would find in a roller coaster. Both the Ratmansky and the Wheeldon were previously staged by the Company; only McIntyre was newly premiered. In the Ratmansky, Liu Miaomiao sported with precision and rampage as Elephant, while Li Lin and Jonathan Spigner, as Horses, approached their steps with rhythmic clarity. But Gao Ge’s Swan, while technically faultless, did not sway the audience with emotional impact. In Wheeldon’s Rush, last-minute substitutes Chen Zhiyao and Wei Wei danced gloriously in perfect partnership. Chen’s still lines brimmed with elegance, while Wei Wei’s supporting work was rock solid. Their pas de deux would have been perfect had Wei Wei been more conscientious of his stance, which tended to turn-in like an ugly duckling. A Day in the Life offered perhaps what would be the emotional high water mark of the evening. Set against 13 Beatles songs, McIntyre’s choreography adhered to the rhythmic and melodic tendencies, rather than the lyrical meaning of the music. Eight dancers shared duties more or less equally, but highlights belonged to Li Jiabo and Xia Jun. To the music of Mother Nature’s Son, Li Jiabo swamped the stage with energy, generated chiefly from the strength of his core and leg work. Xia Jun danced to Wild Honey Pie, an experimental piece by McCartney that lasted barely over a minute. But what a minute that was. Xia Jun unleashed a voracious tornado of power through powerful limb work, especially his arms. Swift movements that brought his arms from a stretched position to over his chest and back punched with rhythmic sensation. The volume of the soundtrack was either amplified slightly to match Xia’s solo fervor, or his tremendous effort was perceived to have amplified the ambient track. Xia’s performance in this evening alone should guarantee his place as a premier dancer of the Company. The rest of the cast was also good: Chen Zhiyao and Liu Miaomiao showed their more chirpy side dancing to the snappy Beatles tunes, while Yang Ruiqi danced with the sort of White Cat-like spirit that enlivened the auditorium. But the evening as a whole lacked intricate choreography worthy of lasting imprint in the memory; nor was there a long build-up that would mirror the grand pas in the classical repertory (Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, as an example, would have offered that sort of climactic bookend). In the end, that grand pas finale belonged to Liang Jing, who would depart after more than two decades of service – as dancer and as ballet master – to the Company. Four former and current artistic directors, as well as many dancers, lavished their praises in the video tribute, but the most personal tribute came from Madeleine Onne. Her voice, nearly cracking with poignant melancholy, expressed her gratitude to Liang with sincerity and sensitivity. As she sang the praises of Liang’s devotion, plenty in the audience nodded in agreement. That was perhaps that singular oomph moment missing in the programming.

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Chamber music and recital

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi: Recital

Date: April 5, 2018
Location: Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin.

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, tombak and daf

Sandwiched between two Parsifal outings in Berlin is a recital by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, an Iranian-born, Berlin-based percussionist now regarded as the world’s foremost virtuoso of tombak, a goblet-shaped hand drum widely used in Persian music. Tombak musicians snap and scratch their fingers on the drumhead to create sound. A wide variety of timbre is created by changing: fingering velocity, the duration of touch on the drumhead (a kiss vs. a snap), and contact friction (skin vs. fingernail). Mortazavi revolutionized tombak playing by introducing new techniques by the dozens, including heavy use of finger knuckles, use of one’s thumb to “divide” the drumhead into two sides with different tensions and therefore distinguishable pitches, and extensive use of the side of the drum for antiphonal clicks. In other words, Mortazavi has redefined tombak playing as an interaction between any physical structure of the drum instrument and any physical structure of the human hands. It is hardly surprising that Mortazavi’s unconventional playing has drawn the ire of traditionalists, who consider the pure art of tombak playing gravely endangered. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the new inventions introduce a richer texture of sound with heightened expressive capabilities.

The evening performance did not have a stated program – the proceedings seemed to be a direct result of Mortazavi’s, as well as the audience’s response to his music. In addition to tombak, Mortazavi also played the daf, a tambourine-like hand drum. In fact he played with two of them, one of which included a web of metal rings clung to the rim to effectuate breeze-like metallic jingles. All his pieces were constructed with multiple cycles of varying dynamics, surging to great heights and then receding to dark, hushed valleys. His fingering varied from a meticulous series of light tapping to a rapid firing of uninhibited fury. Using nearly all his fingers (except thumbs), he created perfectly aligned rolls of notes with a machine-like consistency. By changing placements of his palm on the drumhead, tones swerved from high to low, sometimes falling off a cliff on a whim, other times sliding slowly into an eerie oblivion. Some of his solos lasted well over fifteen minutes, with undulating dynamics, long plateaus of fiery jubilations, and cascading sets of tonal features. Mortazavi’s music is not, and probably not meant to be programmatic, but the rugged mountain ranges of the Zagros come to mind. Mortazavi was humorous too: after a long languish, he would end a piece with a crisp beating of the side of the drum or a comedic brush of the drum body’s decorative grooves. Or he would bookend a ravishing finish of blazing intensity with a lazy snap on the drumhead.

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Chamber music and recital

Padmore/Wigglesworth/Cook: Schumann, Janáček

Date: April 4, 2018
Location: Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Berlin.

Schumann – Liederkreis Op. 39
Wiggleworth – Echo and Narcissus
Janáček – Zápisník zmizelého (The Diary of One Who Disappeared)

Mark Padmore, tenor
Ryan Wigglesworth, piano
Allison Cook, mezzo-soprano
Members of the Vocalconsort Berlin

Echo and Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata is Ryan Wiggleworth’s setting of the Narcissus poem from Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. The piece is a perfect companion to Janáček’s The Diary of One, set to the text by Ozef Kalda, not least because Wiggleworth’s inspiration for the format of his work came from Janáček’s – a musical setting with a male voice as chief protagonist, a female voice as narrator, piano and an off-stage female choir in mind. Both pieces also tell the story of a man falling for the beauty of another (for Narcissus, the reflection of himself), enchanted in part by the glitter of the eyes: “He could not believe / The beauty of those eyes / That gazed into his own” (Hughes); “Pohledla po mně zhluboka / pak vznesla sa přes peň / a tak mi v hlavě ostala / přes celučký, celučký deň. (With searching eyes she looked at me / then swift as a bird flew / but left me yearning after her / for all that day, all that day through.)” (Kalda). Both men bid farewell to a land where their lives begin, but this is where the comparison ends: Wigglesworth’s ending is chilling, as if all lights around us are dimming to an eternal darkness. Janáček’s treatment is more upbeat, as the protagonist bids farewell with a new chapter of life already in mind – after all, he clearly knows he is eloping with his temptress Zefka. Where Janáček’s colorations ebb and flow, Wigglesworth’s palette is decidedly more somber. His piece ends with Mark Padmore repeating the word “farewell”, in a slow diminuendo and with two syllables in a descending semi-tone. The counterpoint is the off-stage chorus (situated at the back of audience balcony) repeating the same words in an eerie pattern of ascending harmonic progression. Wigglesworth’s writing here is simple, elegant, but dramatically effective, and I wish this work could find a place in the standard repertoire. Mark Padmore never over-dramatized (in contrast to Ian Bostridge’s; see earlier review here), but elucidated his lines clearly, with conviction and utmost reverence. This kind of treatment was particularly evident in Schumann, where his delivery flowed with conversational beauty, without the sort of overt, let-me-tell-you-something sort of didacticism prevalent with some of the more lieder recitalists today. His on-stage demeanor gave the effect of letting the voice and words speak for themselves, and he was merely a conduit between us the audience and the composition. Allison Cook was a fine singer who mustered different timbres as she cycled through bursts of singing, narrating, and whispering. Ryan Wigglesworth had a fine touch and sensibility on the keys. His prolonged pedaling of the final chord in Janáček punctuated the protagonist’s exhilaration, as if to reflect upon the more somber Schumann and Wigglesworth that came before.

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