Ballet and dance

La Scala Ballet: Giselle

Date: February 19 & 22, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot

La Scala Ballet

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
David Garforth (conductor)

French Romantic ballet, stemming from the flurry of artistic output in the early- to mid-nineteenth century in continental Europe, features such Romantic concepts as human love, nature, and yearning for peace and freedom. Much of this was on display here at the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival, in a La Scala production of Giselle. The impressive lush scenes in Act I, gorgeous costumes and buttery dancing offered a perfect angle from which to view Romanticism.

Headlining La Scala’s efforts was Svetlana Zakharova, the Russian/Ukrainian superstar who would dance two of the evenings (sandwiched between her Sochi Olympics opening ceremony and closing ballet gala duties), and David Hallberg, who would partner with Zakharova on those evenings. Reviewed here were two performances that featured neither of them, mainly because of scheduling conflicts (with Cologne and Pires), but also because these two superstars were not obvious interpreters of the Romantic genre. The alternate pairings of Lusymay di Stefano/ Claudio Coviello and Virna Toppi/Antonino Sutera, though lacking global star power, proved nevertheless adequate and effective. In di Stefano, La Scala found a Giselle who moved with fluidic smoothness and round arms — both hallmarks of French Romanticism. Toppi, when posing en arabesque, found her upper body always slightly leaning forward in a naturally balanced pose — another hallmark of Romanticism. While neither rendered the treacherous directional turns during their en pointe travels in the Bergmüller variation (and neither did Zakharova in her two performances, from what I heard through the grapevine), both executed with ample lyricism and velvety smoothness. Toppi was technically clean and dramatically scorching. When she fell into the arms of her mother at the end of Act I, one could really smell that her life was expiring. Di Stefano, exhibiting a glittering youthful presence, found no issue singing the concept of love through her body. When her pleas to Myrtha to spare Albrecht were dismissed, she proved tantalizingly effective in projecting not only despair but a sense of longing for freedom through death and sacrifice.

Coviello was a prolific actor, and his Albrecht made a suitably jelling partner of di Stefano’s Giselle, however short their time together might be. Sutera spared no juices to remain aviating mid-air for as long and as cleanly as possible, and the crowd reciprocated, during his string of thirty-two strongly danced entrechats six, with hearty approval. The rest of the corps had sensational outings in both evenings. In the Act II Dance of the Willis, the corps moved en tutti harmoniously. Their charging arabesques towards the middle of the stage, in teaming lines of succession, paraded ahead with both integrated beauty and a steadfast togetherness.

Over the past century, Adolphe Adam’s score has been more edited and revised than Mary Tyler Moore’s Kim Novak’s face. But thanks to the research and editing efforts of long-time Scala conductor David Garforth and publisher Boosey & Hawkes a decade ago, much of Adam’s original score was restored. The Garforth edition was played here in Hong Kong. Under the baton of Garforth himself, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta was luscious and cooperative in these two evenings, and sounded markedly better than they did last year with the ABT in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Admittedly, Adam’s score, pounded out in a week’s time, was not as intricate and hazardous as Prokofiev’s. Nevertheless, the Sinfonietta sounded luxuriant and vital, which in turn made these two Romantic evenings a most fulfilling one.

Giselle, Act I Rhineland scene. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle, Act I: Rhineland scene. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle Act II: Dance of the Willis. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle, Act II: Dance of the Willis. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Chamber music and recital, Orchestral music

Scottish Chamber/Pires: Chopin, Beethoven

Date: February 20 & 21, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano

In two concerts during the Arts Festival, the Hong Kong audience had a chance to hear Lisboeta pianist Maria João Pires play two concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Schumann (Op. 54), and Chopin No. 2 (Op. 21). In the first concert, Pires committed herself with measured eloquence, and showed no signs of impatience in unveiling Schumann’s melodic fabric in a slow but sure fashion. In both opening and final movements, her playing infused an aura of nobility and grandeur in the concert hall, though at times her generous pedal work obscured some fine details, especially in those book-ending movements. In the second concert, Chopin’s tricky fingering did not faze the 69-year-old pianist, who delighted with a sympathetic, almost cerebral insight to the piece. Pires’ articulation, unruffled and full of small details and ideas, would easily earn the composer’s approval. That said, Pires seemed just short of providing a requisite level of emotive fervor and broad dynamic range demanded by the piece, especially in the all-hell-breaks-loose Allegro vivace movement. On balance, Pires remains a world-class pianist despite her age, but the choice of the Chopin was less than desirable. Perhaps the Hong Kong audience would be better served with the sort of Schubert and Brahms chamber works – well featured in Pires’ recent recordings with DG – that are more appropriate at this stage in her career. Also programmed in the two concerts were two symphonies: Schumann No. 2 and Beethoven No. 5. The chamber group as a whole was careful with detailing. The first bassoon could have been less dynamically protruding, especially during the Beethoven, but overall the musicians did fine under Robin Ticciati’s animated conducting. The Glyndebourne director-designate’s arm movements, vivid with broad motions, were exciting and fun to watch. The baroque horns (in the Beethoven) had a few dirty moments, but when the archaic instruments were in control, they gave the sort of regal spaciousness and metallic splendor that regular French horns could not easily reproduce.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (Photo credit: HK Arts Festival website)

Orchestral music

Cologne Guerzenich/Stenz/Meyer: Mozart, Strauss

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)