Chamber music and recital

Magdalena Kožená

Date: November 10, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Magdalena Kožená’s recital last night at the Cultural Centre was essentially a concert version of her hit album, Lettere Amorose, a collection of Italian love songs from the 17th century. These songs came from a time when classical music was the pop music of its day, where the songs were performed and hummed at street corners and at dinner tables. In collaboration with Private Musicke, Kožená found an ensemble of musicians immensely and precisely skilled at reproducing the kind of plucked and percussive sounds found at those street corners and dinner tables in 17th century Italy. The ensemble consisted of Pierre Pitzl and Hugh James Sandilands on the guitar, Jesús Fernández Baena on the teorba, Daniel Pilz on the colascione, Richard Lee Myron on violone/bass, Francisco José Montero Martinez on the lirone, and Marc Clos on percussion. Some of Clos’ percussive instruments looked like they were borrowed from the modern LP set than authentically periodic. But the sound that Clos was able to produce from his instruments blended quite well with the other strings, gave just enough percussive zest, but never drew attention to itself. Clos had prized ears and visual vigilance for maintaining dynamic balance and rhythmic integrity of the ensemble. Pitzl made some extremely convoluted playing on the fingerboard look devilishly easy, and his fluidic, no non-sense mannerism was quite centrally effective in bringing about the ensemble’s late Renaissance sensibilities. Kožená’s voice, marked with minimal vibrato and very little mannerism, effervesced with a refreshing air of ethereal beauty. Kožená did not possess the largest or plumpest of voices, but what she produced carried poetic quality: in the last line in Cruda Amarilli, “I’mi morrò tacendo / in silence I shall die”, Kožená elicited hapless desperation by cringing and slightly lightening her timbre. As she sang about love in the line “da temprar de l’amato mio bene e de l’arso mio cor l’occulto foco / to soothe the hidden fire of my beloved and my scorched heart” and she closed her eyes and lightly cupped her breasts, some audience members, sensing the grief, were heard gasping in sorrow. Kožená’s Hong Kong debut was not sold out, but based on the rabid reception at the end, it would be safe to predict that the audience in Hong Kong would not have to wait as long for her return as they did for her debut.

Magdalena Kožená in Hong Kong.

Magdalena Kožená in Hong Kong.

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Chinese opera

Reconciliation (解怨记)

Date: November 9, 2013
Location: Chi Lin Hall at Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong.

Reconciliation, a new Kunqu opera adapted from a Buddhist sutra, tells the ancient Indian story of King Dighiti. King Brahmadatta, a neighbor, frequently waged wars with King Dighiti because his land lacked the kind of fertile resources that King Dighiti’s kingdom enjoyed. Despite always coming out victorious, the kind-hearted King Dighiti surrendered his throne to his neighbor lest he be further witness to war-related bloodshed and suffering. King Brahmadatta repaid the goodwill by capturing and then killing the good king. Before the good king’s death, he advised his son, Dighavu, to lead his life with tolerance and forgiveness. As time went by, Dighavu found himself with opportunities to avenge his father’s death, but stopped short each time because the spirit of his father would appear to reiterate his advice. When King Brahmadatta finally realized the grace of the father and son, he repented and gave his daughter’s hand to Dighavu. With the marriage came peace and prosperity between the two formerly warring states.

The premise of the sutra is simple enough: to resolve grievance and injustice through tolerance and forgiveness. When two-time Plummie winner Lin Weilin (林为林) put his hands on the story, he attempted to make it as accessible as possible but left very little room for imagination and character development. The sutra places very little emphasis on the wars, yet Lin directed a long series of acrobatics aimed at depicting the warring states. While the athletic spectacle was visually stunning, it was long and often redundant, especially the multiple flips (翻跌) and endless spear fights (对枪). The sutra only gives passing mention to King Dighiti’s queen, but in Lin’s version, the queen, played here by the beautiful Xu Yanfen (徐延芬), had enough set pieces to introduce a character, but not nearly enough to develop the character or the story. Tragically, as good as Xu the dramatist could be (see here), her best dramatic moment was neither sung nor acted: instead, as she was about to give up her throne, she stood silently with her husband downstage while a recorded voice-over sang the couple’s fate. Xu should have been given a chance to shine at that moment. Cheng Weibing (程伟兵)’s King Dighiti was often found speaking with a sermonic, almost god-like attitude, and did not seem to project a kind of earthly sensibilities that one would expect from a human. The fact that King Dighiti was being sanctified here only diminished his potential as a humanized voice of compassion. Only King Brahmadatta, played by Hu Linan (胡立楠), seemed to carry his evil all the way to the end. Xiang Weidong (项卫东), as Dighavu, found maturity at the end but did not seem to develop it leading to that point.

The best moment all evening happened at the very beginning, when a guqin player and a Chinese flutist rendered a lyrical, almost celestial Brahmic chant, written by Yao Gongbai (姚公白), Chi Lin’s resident composer. The Brahmic chant was an appropriate prelude vehicle because its cleansing effect resonated with the reconciliation theme.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

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