Orchestral music

Phil Orch/Dutoit/Steinbacher: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky etc.

Date: May 4 and 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is no stranger to the Beijing audience. It was the first American orchestra to visit modern China, in 1973, with Eugene Ormandy. The last visit was two years ago, with Christoph Eschenbach. It is now back in the Chinese capital again, only this time without a permanent music director. Charles Dutoit, currently “Chief Conductor” with the Orchestra, is considered temporary and, despite his popularity and good relationships with the players, does not hold the Orchestra’s coveted directorship.

This temporary appointment has not deterred Dutoit from attempting the works most associated with the Philadelphia Sound: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in the first evening, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring in the second.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was the composer’s last composition, and was widely considered to be a summary of his late style, which emphasized the tonal color and character of individual instruments. Dutoit’s rendition was precise and cohesive, and he seemed thoroughly in control despite the piece’s intricate dynamisms and complexities. The Symphonic Dances, dedicated to and premiered by the Orchestra and Ormandy, is considered to be a top-line item in Philadelphia’s repertoire, and here in Beijing this golden age sound was once again lit up and alive.

Also in the first evening’s programme was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, soloed by Arabella Steinbacher. Steinbacher’s top notes were fiery but insecure at times, and her pitch was in some instances warped, especially in the top range. Her Tchaikovsky was measured, but sometimes felt unnecessarily dragged on. Any violinist playing the piece would look forward to the climactic locomotion of the third movement, but Steinbacher seemed to have lost focus here and there, and sounded as if her agile prowess was the only thing that remained in a soulless figure lacking any emotive sentimentality. Horns in the second movement sounded unnecessarily loud, with its dynamics often overwhelming the exquisite solo lines. While a great majority of the audience gasped and cheered at the end of the piece, I couldn’t help but notice that a few souls left the hall for intermission feeling somewhat less than fully satisfied.

Steinbacher, born to a German father and a Japanese mother, is a beautiful woman, with the kind of mystic, Eurasian facial features and gorgeous, ballerina-like figure that most certainly turn heads wherever she goes. Yet, that beauty was thoroughly betrayed by the alarmingly distracting gown that wrapped around her body. It had these coffee-brown feathers that, when sewn together, looked as if Big Bird jumped into a puddle of mud. And when her body moved with the music, I couldn’t get Big Bird and its fluttering wings off my mind.

The all-Stravinsky evening the next day was quite a rare treat. The Firebird was lively and feisty, with the clear agenda of initially masquerading but slowly unveiling the full glory of Stravinsky’s orchestration. The Rite of Spring moved with a spirited, almost playfully prankish pace, for a good reason: it is one of the Orchestra’s signature pieces, and the one piece that not only was first recorded in the US by Philadelphia with Stokowski, but also became commercially popular after being prominently featured in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, whose orchestral music was, of course, played by the Orchestra.

The crisp virtuosity on display by Dutoit and the Orchestra transported the audience back to this gilded golden age that today’s audience could only sample via recordings. The first evening’s encore, a section from Ravel’s Daphnis, was filled with the sort of tender romanticism that evoked Muti and late-career Ormandy. The presence of octogenarian percussionist — the legendary Alan Abel — was not even formally credited by the printed programme but, at least to me, the most special. It was therefore regrettable that neither of the concerts was sold out, with plenty of seats available in nearly every section of the hall.

Chamber music and recital

Li Yundi: Chopin Recital

Date: May 15, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA.

The Chopin interpreter is an abstract denotation, but Li never shied away from staking his claim on it. His series of Nocturnes, Opp. 9-1, 9-2, 15-2, 27-2 and 48-1 was measured, controlled and expressive. If an immense amount of dexterity was involved, Li did not show it – as if there was no instrument, only an audio output. In Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22, Li offered to expose the two brilliant aspects of Chopin’s body of works by brokering and deftly connecting the first part’s calming serenity with the second part’s fearless intensity.

After a brief intermission and a quick march through a mid-series set of Mazurkas (Op. 33), he moved onto the centerpiece of the evening, Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. In the first movement, his playing style was paraded: skilled but never overtly athletic, in control and never volatile. Li’s rendition of the third movement of Sonata No. 2 op. 35 spoke volumes: the funeral march theme was somber and ponderous, while the Lento interlude was meticulous in its tempi and careful in its phrasing. Li’s touching of the keys was magical: this, being one of my favorite sonatas, was one of the most majestic renditions I have ever heard, easily on par with and quite possibly surpassing the Rubenstein’s, Gilel’s, Zimerman’s, and Kissin’s I grew up to love and adore. Anchoring the programme was Polonaise, Op. 53, where Li’s early attack was a little sloppy, but he quickly recovered to dance to a jubilant finish.

His Mazurka exhibited a level of explicit staccato mannerism that has not previously appeared in any of his recordings, but I can’t be sure whether it was Li’s emerging style or just a fleeting moment of liberty. As encore pieces, he played a melancholic Chinese revolutionary song styled in French impressionism, and then Chopin’s Etude in C minor Op. 10-12. After rounds of rapturous applauses, the audience seemed disappointed that Li chose not to come back for a third encore, though it seemed clear to me that, by that moment, Li’s mental energy seemed drained, most probably through the intensity of the Sonata.

In my opinion, unlike many Chopin interpreters, Li Yundi’s brilliance rests not merely with a white-hot intensity and dazzling virtuosity, but with his sincere deference to the composition. The pounding of keys is merely secondary to an output of tonal richness and sweet phrasing. No amount of words would justify my impression of Li Yundi. Regardless, it would be safe to say that after a night of intense, indefatigable hip hop, Li’s music served as a luxurious, mind-soothing calmative.

Pop, jazz and rap

Fat Joe

Date: May 14, 2010
Location: Vics, Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing

In a week where I got highly sought-after tickets to the world premiere of an ancient Kunqu, the premiere of Francesca Zambello’s Carmen at the NCPA, and a rare recital by Li Yundi, I would be insane to believe that I could yet find another ticket that could top those. But I may just have: Fat Joe.

Fat Joe, to those uninitiated, is a top-class American rapper and the CEO/proprietor of Terror Squad, a successful record label. His music has occupied my various MP3 players since 2002, and his album, Elephant in the Room, while not exactly a huge commercial success, is a versatile anthology of hip-hop and one of my favorites. Even though Maria Callas is one of my favorite opera singers and though I have over a hundred of her CDs and DVDs, I can’t even claim to have collected half of her output. But I surely have every single record Fat Joe has ever produced and sung in. That attests to the kind of luvin’ I give to Fat Joe! I consider Fat Joe to be a master lyricist whose tight verses are rhythmically well matched up against fiery beats. In this performance in Beijing, he appeared for about 40 minutes, crisscrossing between older numbers and newer ones. His calling card, Lean Back, was smashingly thrilling and authoritative, and got the most ardent response from his fans, some of whom, standing close to me, were reciting the lyrics in near verbatim without missing a beat. During his performance of What’s Luv, he was visibly in a lovin’ groove, interacting with the house with an affectionate gaze. Between numbers, he showed off his tremendous MC skills by firing up and hustling the crowd. The crowd returned much love, eagerly and frenetically responding to Fat Joe’s calls. When Fat Joe talked about his jailed buddy and frequent collaborator, Lil Wayne, the crowd went nuts, obviously showing much sympathy and love, irrespective of his legal troubles.

Fat Joe’s appearance in Beijing was a rare gem because, according to his tweet, he was in Asia for the very first time in his career. Also, as far as I could remember, Fat Joe has never been a big fan of flying, and would opt for buses over airplanes whenever he tours North America (ok, if not flying, I’d seriously like to find out how he managed to get from NYC to Asia). This week, I did not meet Zambello, nor did I hustle with Stan Kwan. But I shoved aside plenty of fans – many half a decade or more younger than I – to get to the edge of the stage, and high-fived Joey Crack. Whatever Li Yundi does tonight is not going to beat that. Ya digg?

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

This is how close I got to him, before high-fiving him.


NCPA/Chen: Carmen

Date: May 13, 2010
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello’s new Beijing production of Carmen, commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, was a resounding triumph. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto, based on the eponymous novella by Prosper Mérimée, was realized by Zambello’s international team in all its gripping drama and theatricality. British set designer Peter Davison built an elephantine set that, at each point of its unveiling, triggered collective gasps by an awed audience. Costume designer Susan Willmington and lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy, both Brits, provided plenty of peppery visual stimulus. An ebullient cast obliged, and delivered an enthusiastic and sumptuously pleasurable stage performance.

Davison’s set was sweeping and broad, covering the proscenium’s entire width. When curtain rose for the first act, a street view was revealed with a slight downward slant to the left, as if to highlight the undulating landscape of Moorish Spain. A rectangular well was placed in the middle of the stage, providing an anchor upon which the first act chorus gathered and an excuse for Carmen to wash her legs and breasts and, most assuredly, to flaunt those plump assets. The second act was a mirror image of the first, whereby the first act’s street stage was flipped to reveal its corresponding interior space. A flight of stairs running from the back to the middle of the stage served as the entrance to Lillas Pastia’s inn and Escamillo’s famed entry point. The set for the third act was a revelation: an imposing rocky scene split into two spaces by a torn wall: a dimly lit, cold space where the smugglers gathered with their contraband, and a warmer volume where Micaela initially hid. While Carmen was never about good versus bad, the contrast was obvious, and the comparison apt. The torn wall spectacularly ran the full height of the proscenium, and upon its unveiling at the beginning of the third act, the audience reacted with a series of approving applauses. The fourth act fully utilized the NCPA’s gigantic stage by prominently showcasing a large bull-fight arena piece, with a nearly five-meter, arched passageway serving as Escamillo’s entrance to the ring and exit from stage.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen, was a captivating actor. The eyes of her Carmen were ablaze with lust and mischievousness, while her sexy body movement was suggestive and inviting. The coloration with which she adorned her melodic lines was expressive and, unlike those colorations from many other overconfident Carmens, not so self-important as to appear vain. Her middle voice, while lacking the velvety warmth typical of an engaging Carmen, had plenty of weight and confidence without any audible hint of chest voice. That said, Chavez’s pitch was somewhat suspect: she tended to go sharp whenever there was a high note in forte, and on various occasions she would enter her passage in a slightly misplaced key, especially En vain… amères at the beginning of the third act.

Jean-Luc Chaignaud’s Escamillo was entertaining and dependable. His stage entry in the second act was full of panache, highlighted by his dramatic throwing of his montera across the stage. His vocal entrance, by comparison, was more pedestrian, as he initially had trouble finding a dynamic range that could carry over the orchestra and into the auditorium. That was not his fault alone – the long recession between the top of the staircase, where he entered, and the orchestra was unforgiving and bore some of the blame. As he descended and moved forward, his voice carried through, in a measured display of baritonal confidence. The rest of the supporting cast excelled: Chen Peixin’s Zuniga delivered a bass line that was full and rounded. Niu Shasha and Li Xintong displayed plenty of coloratura skills in the roles of Mercedes and Frasquita: their harmonious duets Mêlons! Coupons! and Quant au douanieraffaire! stood out with plenty of sappy sweetness. Li Hong served up a feisty Lillas Pastia: her acting was charismatic and lively, though her stunning beauty was somewhat a distraction, especially in the scene before Carmen’s initial entrance in the first act, where Li’s Lillas wore the red flower and taunted the soldiers in a prominent, and in my opinion excessive, fashion.

Richard Troxell’s spinto voice was a little on the lighter side but was well polished and ripe. Listed in the programme notes as a lyric tenor, the American’s voice seemed more naturally suited for spinto roles such as Jose. His careful technique allowed him to navigate the more difficult passages with security and ease. His La fleur, in particular, was meticulously crafted and superbly acted. While he momentarily cracked in the bar just before the big aria’s finale, he recovered to deliver a rousing Bb in mezzo-forte, even though he did not manage (or be bothered) to work on the pianissimo. I would love to hear more of him, as Riccardo, perhaps even Manrico and Alvaro if he continues to build more weight to his voice.

Among the singers of the evening, Anne-Catherine Gillet, as Micaela, had the most comfortable command of the vocal instrument. She demonstrated a luxurious yet well-regulated trill, a huge top and an expressive timbre. She was also a capable actor: many of the Micaelas I have seen in the past were so overacted as to border annoying, but Gillet’s Micaela was mellow and lovable, beaming the kind of ravishing affability one typically associates with one’s friendly next door neighbor. Her arias were phrased with passionate individuality, without teetering on self-indulgence. The Belgian, quite naturally, also had the clearest diction amongst the international cast.

The biggest problem of the evening remained in the pit. At times, Zuohuang Chen sounded as if he had tremendous difficulty holding together the NCPA Orchestra, newly-formed just a few months ago. Soloists romped free, creating a horrendously jagged and patchy orchestral output. Even when everything seemed synchronized and balanced, the playing seemed more routine than inspired, and showed none of the sparkle which Bizet infused into the score. The only worthy highlight of the evening was the Toreador song, which was rendered with broad strokes, in a controlled hysteria of festivity and fervor. But a fleeting moment did not an evening make, and the subpar performance was insulting to a largely educated audience whose discontent at the conducting during the curtain calls were scattered but clearly audible, and, in my opinion at least, justified.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Note: this is the dialogue version. While the NCPA’s sheer size should really call for the Guiraud version, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the dialogues were transmitted to my balcony seat. Some of the audibility problems had nothing to do with version choice: the beginning of Escamillo’s Act 2 aria was due to design limitation; and for part of the evening, due to an orchestra that loomed too much over the voice.

Chamber music and recital

Li Biao: Recital

Date: May 7, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Li Biao recital: the setup.

Li Biao recital: the setup.

Li Biao, one of the few full-time solo percussionists, opened the NCPA May Festival with a feisty display of musicianship and dexterity. Accompanying Li were the percussion section from the Berlin Philharmonic and the piano duo of Mona & Rica Bard.

The first piece, “Ku-Ka Ilimoku”, written by Christopher Rause, was inspired by Hawaiian themes. Rhythmically, it ripped with spice and character. The second piece, “Bridging the World” was mellow, the kind of music one would expect in a picturesque country house sitting next to a gentle stream. The third piece, “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich, was written for five pairs of pitched claves. Each percussionist built up his own rhythmic pattern from one stroke to four strokes, and then repeating the four strokes. As these patterns overlapped, the full glory of Reich’s piece was unveiled: an intersection of crisp counterpoints, woven into an exquisite rhythmic fabric. Other pieces before intermission included “Tango Suite no. 1” by Astro Piazzola, and Russell Peck’s “Lift Off!”, which tried to recreate the sound of an airplane taking off. After intermission, the evening turned to more conventional pieces, with Bartok’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion”, and Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”.

In all, Li Biao and the Berlin group showed plenty of rhythmic energy, explosive yet measured. It was a pity that the house was only about 70% full, and that some in the audience were too eager to show their appreciation by clapping, especially in the middle of “Lift Off!”. The piece had a build-up whose climax would, in my opinion, call for some form of audience appreciation, much like how interludes between jazz improvisations by different musicians would call for appreciation. But here, as if fully anticipated and rehearsed but at least a dozen bars too early, the clapping was premature and, when it happened, quite awkward. CP, was that you?!

Chinese opera

Go West (走西口)

Date: May 6, 2010

Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Go West

Shanxi Province Peking Opera Troupe's production of Go West.

Background. The story of Go West is set in the middle of Qing dynasty, during a period when trade routes between China and Russia were significantly expanded. Chang Yuqiao (常雨桥), a honest sesame oil trader from Shanxi, got into trouble when one of his employees shirked and mixed lower grade oil into top grade oil. To save his reputation, Chang recalled, repurchased, and set ablaze all the bad oil. That act put a significant dent to Chang’s finances, and just as his business was running to the ground, Zhong Xueer (钟雪儿), an old enemy-turned-trusted confidant, offered her helping hands, and when an old friend learned of Chang’s plight, he offered his help, eventually turning around Chang’s fortunes. The story highlights the comradeship of Shanxi traders – a virtue that continues to this day.

Performance. Theatricality of this new production is not subtle: this is a modern production with complex lighting schemes and a colorful array of costumes. Lighting designer Ma Lu (马路) provided a rapidly changing series of colors, painting the set into shades of red, blue, yellow and other colors. In the scene in which Chang’s inventory was burned to the ground, a glowing red light was used to flood the stage, thereby casting Chang’s fortunes to a state of temporary filth. The singing by Yu Kuizhi (于魁智) was impeccable, and he was able to go through Chang’s difficult top notes with ease. When Yu sang “号规如山” / “our brand rules are everything” with authority and regal power, he left no doubt that the corner-cutting employee was not going to get a free pass for his mistake. Li Shengsu (李胜素), who are often partnered with Yu in Chinese opera productions, sang the role of Zhong. In the stanza “往事历历在眼前” / “imagery of the past rolls in front of my eyes”, Li sang with conviction and panache, and hit a lyrical stride so much so that she seemed capable of doing just about anything. The rest of the cast was solid, including Zhu Li (朱丽), who sang the role of Chang’s mother with sheer confidence. Dramatist Zhang Xiaoya (张晓亚) has crafted an accessible human story, and prudently stayed clear of the burden of complex imperial history. The way the stage is designed – with simple and readily transportable elements – means that it would likely travel to reach a larger audience. If audience reception here in Beijing could serve as any guide, the larger audience would most certainly receive the new production with delight.

Li Shengsu in Go West

Li Shengsu in Go West.