Orchestral music

Dresden Philharmonic

Date: October 23, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Michael Sanderling led the Dresdner players in an evening of romanticism, featuring Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Dvorak’s violin concerto with the young and talented Julia Fischer, and finally Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Julia Fischer’s violin playing was feisty and articulate, though her mannerisms on stage gave the impression that she did not feel particularly affectionate towards or comfortable with the piece. In her encore performance, Paganini’s Caprice No. 15, her fingering was feathery and not labored at all, despite all the technical traps of the piece. More importantly, the sort of delicate care that she placed into her phrasing and dynamics suggested that the work was deeply personal to her.

A Tristan Liebestod without a soprano voice was like eating dry pancakes without syrup; the best that could be said of Dresden’s performance here was that all notes were played and phrasal arches seemed to suggest some sort of dramatic consequence behind the music. But there was hardly any inkling that fate and death had anything to do with their clinical but unfortunately rather lifeless rundown. With Brahms, Michael Sanderling could not bring out the best of the players until the second movement, but by then damage has been done. During the development section of the first movement, strings and winds were supposed to converse in a series of call and response, almost like a gentle quarrel between two young, passionate lovers, but instead what was heard was a bland series of notes that happened in time but offered little else, even in the context of Brahms’ pure music. The horns’ second movement entry was timid and unfocused. The lower brasses, which were given plenty of attention by the composer in the fourth movement, were frequently hesitant – a fatal flaw in a movement where Brahms obviously played tribute to the structural clarity of classicism. But all was not lost. Brahms made a commitment, particularly in this last symphonic work of his, to highlight woodwinds not merely as a crucial harmonic support but as a defining one, even if often buried in the rest of the orchestral harmonics. The woodwind players duly complied and, in my life of hearing Brahms, I have not heard an oboist as devoted and as lyrical as the lovely Undine Röhner-Stolle, Dresden’s principal. Her playing beamed with lyrical beauty, like small lilac pedals floating mid-air in autumn breezes. Her phrasal entrances were clean and committed; her phrasing was sublime and heart-warmingly poetic.

I could not remember the last time when I was compelled, after a performance, to google to find out more about an orchestra member. Röhner-Stolle’s commitment seemed contagious too: players around her found themselves unchained and seemingly having a time of their life. As audience, we live for and cherish those moments.

Dresden in Hong Kong.

Dresden in Hong Kong.

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Ballet and dance

Anna Karenina

Date: October 18, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Boris Eifman

Eifman Ballet

No one who knows anything about storytelling could seriously believe that choreographer Boris Eifman, in a two-hour ballet production, could manage to retell Tolstoy’s magnum opus about post-Crimean War Russian aristocracy in its full-fledged entirety. In this production, Eifman could not, but that was not his agenda. In his production notes, Eifman explains that he has cut out the various counterplot lines in the novel, and has made the Anna-Karenin-Vronsky love triangle the central focus of his ballet. By not directly commenting on hypocrisy, class struggle and social progress – all of which are among Tolstoy’s many central themes in Karenina – Eifman is set free to expound upon the inner desires and turbulences of the three characters.

The effect was mixed. Nina Zmievets, Oleg Markov and Oleg Gabyshev, the incredibly talented trio of dancers forming that love triangle, navigated Eifman’s hauntingly difficult steps with fluidic precision and boundless stamina. Absorbed in their own world, one could sense immediately that their energy was indeed feeding off each other. Zmievets particularly stood out with her carefully placed, fluidic lines, as well as her voracious athleticism. Markov’s despair in solitude, just as Zmievets’ Anna was about to leave his Karenin, was grievously captivating. But where Eifman offered very little in terms of dramaturgy, these characters did not have a substantial plot line to move along – the characters were left without real development other than fleeting displays of sensations. These characters might as well have been Juliet-Tybalt-Romeo. In passages where Anna and her lover expressed their love for each other, Zmievets and Gabyshev would often spin and gyrate in acrobatically challenging movements, as if their love was merely physical and delusional rather than lyrical and cerebral. In properly bloated passages, such as the masked ball scene or Anna’s death scene where the corps de ballet mimicked the incoming train, the dancers’ movements were even more clamorous, if not outright violent. Just when one thought Anna’s husband was about to confront his wife regarding her presumed infidelity, he feigned justice by plowing deep into Anna’s body, raping her. As the choreographic texture tilted towards the viscose, the dramatic balance moved towards, if unwittingly, towards bombastic physicality and little else. Were their desires and internal torments merely physical? Did Tolstoy have something else in mind?

Fast spins, high jumps, and long lifts are, when perfectly executed, all hallmarks of a gifted company, but they say very little about artistry and interpretation of an original work. Interpretative ballet is something more akin to enjoying a warm pot of tea in small, savory sips over a long afternoon than, as this Karenina turns out to be, downing successive shots of whole cream. The buffet of Tchaikovsky’s music was glorious, but they failed to link up to a coherent whole. For those who look for more than a perfect display of Russian acrobatics, the deficiencies here inevitably leave them yearning for more.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

Eifman Ballet in Hong Kong.

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Opera

Der fliegende Holländer

Date: October 10, 2013
Conductor: Henrik Schaefer
Production: Adolf Dresen (Volker Böhm revival), with Opera Hong Kong
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

One of the most crucial, albeit brief, moments in Holländer is the back and forth between the Steersmen chorus and the ghost chorus, because it represents the tension between the living and the dead. In this Opera Hong Kong revival of Adolf Dresen’s Düsseldorf production, the ghost chorus was presented via taped recording, leaving the Steersmen chorus singing towards an empty upstage. Dramatically it may not be unreasonable – who can claim that ghosts are visible, if existent at all, anyway – but by using a taped recording rather than a live chorus, the Opera Hong Kong producers (meaning Warren Mok, OHK’s honcho) not only neutered one of Wagner’s dramatic arsenals of the dueling choruses but watered down the opera’s central theme: the archetypal struggle between life and death.

Adolf Dresen’s production was simple and traditional – Act I opened with Daland’s ship parked on stage right. As Steersmen left the scene and the lone watcher fell asleep, Dutchman’s ship slowly rolled in from stage left. Redly lit from within the hull through a metal grid deck, the boat was where The Dutchman entered the stage to the tune of his haunting motif. The rest of the opera revolved mostly around these two ships, save for Act II where ladies spun wheels in what seems like a cotton factory. When The Dutchman finally received his salvation, the ghost ship collapsed in a series of folding mechanical action, not unlike a pirate ship mutilating itself in Disneyland’s water fountain showcase. The set was simple, but mostly conducive to the telling of the opera.

Jukka Rasilainen sounded perfectly fine as The Dutchman but was a relative bore on stage. His visage’s lifelessness seemed to translate onto his voice, especially in “Die frist ist um”. As he reminisced about his longing for death (“doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht!”), when he should have been delirious, he sounded like a disinterested math professor reciting passages from a combinatorics textbook. Rasilainen’s Dutchman did not sound like someone who has toughened himself through years of wandering at sea. If he was anxiously trying to communicate a yearning for redemption, neither his visage nor his voice revealed much of that. Manuela Uhl’s Senta was ungrateful to life but found its meaning and destiny when her eyes first met The Dutchman. Her portrayal of this longing was entirely believable. Vocally, she was careful, though slightly too risk averse, in her Act II ballad, but threw everything on the table in her suicidal cries in the finale. Tomislav Mužek’s Erik was smooth and metallic. The voice of Carsten Süss’s lone Steersman was squeaky in his Act I aria, but flourished in his brief outputs in Act III. Liang Ning struggled at times to produce adequate output at Mary’s low tessitura, but seemed to relish her time on stage. Kurt Rydl’s Daland was the vocal standout of the evening – he sounded stentorian but alive, and portrayed a father who was more opportunistic than genuinely evil. His Daland was the morbid Dutchman’s living, breathing antithesis. Compared with past performances, the chorus of the Opera Hong Kong gave everything they could and then some, and sounded better than ever. Yet the men could use more support at tenor, while the women could be more in unison, especially in phrases starting with hissing syllables.

Henrik Schaefer was seen trying very hard at times to squeeze more dramatic action out of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but the orchestra remained timid and tame – more Lucerne than Baltic if you will. The weak link was not Wagner’s brass, as most would imagine, but upper strings and woodwinds, which sounded like they were playing mood music for a Hollywood movie than for Wagner’s musical drama. In the Overture, for example, motifs from the woodwinds (fate, longing for death etc.) were often buried in a lush sea of supporting harmonic structures rather than standing out on their own. Upper strings often felt thin and under-powered – perhaps the orchestra was simply not used to playing in the pits and unnecessarily tuned down their output upon seemingly hearing themselves too much. If this performance served as any guide, the orchestra surely has much to improve before their fateful date with the Savonlinna voices in Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Lohengrin next year.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

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Chamber music and recital

Die schöne Müllerin

Date: October 2, 2013
Performers: Christoph Genz and Cornelia Herrmann
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Die schöne Müllerin may be an immature work by Schubert, but it is filled with wondrous musical delights. One delight stands out in particular: the motif of the love for the color green. Schubert first defines the motif, a major chord arpeggio, in “Mit dem grünen Lautenbande” (#13, bar 16): “Nun hab das Grüne gern”, before the young apprentice identifies his rival; and basically repeats it in “Die liebe Farbe” (#16, bar 10): “Mein Schatz hat’s Grün so gern”, when his death becomes inevitable. Between the two songs comes the fateful revelation, and to mark the shift in drama Schubert pens a tonal shift from Bb major to B minor. But interestingly, the composer preserves motif’s integrity by emphatically recoloring the motif in “Die liebe Farbe” with a major third (the D# in “mein Schatz”). This development lends credence to the notion that, with the young Schubert ready to maintain some thematic cohesion, his first extended song cycle is more sophisticated than meets the eye. Yet when Christoph Genz attempted “Die liebe Farbe” at City Hall this evening, he flubbed at least one of the emphatic thirds, flatting the note so much so that the notion of a motif became nullified. Genz was similarly uneven for the rest of the evening, and lent few support to long notes, especially at the start of long lines, such as in “Die liebe Farbe”. As a stage performer, Genz did not exhibit undue mannerisms, and seemed quite consistent in the spatial placements of his sightlines: he almost always looked to the audience’s left when singing about the maid, looked to the back of the hall when staring at death, and meandered his sightlines left and right when singing about or voicing the brook. Yet facially he never looked the part of a young and clueless apprentice in love, and his lawless ponytail in the style of bad boy Steven Seagal did not help the cause. Cornelia Herrmann was tentative all night, and, after missing a few notes in the rapid ending of “Ungeduld” (#7), visibly showed her displeasure. Herrmann’s sluggish playing also dragged slower Genz’s voice in the two quick-paced revelations (#14-15), and gave the impression that she was unfamiliar with the music. The performance was a disappointment, but the real disappointment was Hong Kong, whose seven million-strong population could barely fill up one fourth of City Hall’s 1400 seats.

Christoph Genz.

Christoph Genz.

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