Orchestral music

LA Phil/Dudamel: Mahler

Date: March 19, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mahler – Symphony No. 6

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

The young Mahler was known to be a flamboyant, restless man on the rostrum, with exaggerated body swings and a temperament that could infuriate a few. The more mature Mahler as seen this evening mellowed down considerably, with condense and more economical movements. Dudamel’s development seems to follow a similar path: if the rostrum antics of the young Dudamel was once considered too hysterical and riotous, a more mature Dudamel today seems ready to tame himself and be more introspective regarding interpretation.

Aside from the delirium also known as Dudamel’s hairdo, the Venezuelan conductor was spotted this evening with smaller, less aggressive though no less sharp movements. His body, used to swing wildly and violently in an unreviewed Mahler 1 concert more than five years ago, seemed more at ease and at peace with the music. The subtler movement did not necessarily mean his leadership less interpretative: that only seemed to suggest that Dudamel did not feel necessary to use an amplified body language to get his message across, whether to his orchestra or to the audience studying his every move. Dudamel’s Mahler 6 could be combative and violent (Allegro), introspective (Andante), vibrant and lively (Scherzo), and dark and nerve-wrecking (Finale). The hammer blows, executed by a percussionist climbing a flight of stairs to the top of a box the size of a minivan and slashing a hammer onto it, felt brutal and nihilistic. The imagery of a man in polished tails, hammering away at a gigantic wood box in a concert hall was both a visual and a spiritual revelation. Specifically, music could not be dismissed as merely sonic, as if watching an orchestra performing live, within a stone’s throw away, ever was. By the same token, however, a more mature Dudamel should not be seen as lacking vitality — the visual merely became more discriminating, and each movement more profound. The Los Angeles brass painted an acidic, metallic hue, quite American (in the Philadelphia or Cleveland sense) and not quite the same as the warm, golden-hued sound we heard from Staatskapelle Dresden a fortnight ago. The strings were in decent form all night, with a good balance and a clinical execution — perhaps a direct consequence of two decades of Salonen’s institution-transforming directorship. The musicians were like marathon athletes too — able to throw out climax after climax of musical delights throughout the evening, without an inkling of fatigue. The evening’s only major regret was that the Allegro recapitulations were done somewhat as mechanized repeats without much of a change of ideas or even a hint of a desire to change.

The concert occurred just as it was announced across the Pacific that the maestro and his wife of nine years, Eloisa Maturen, were about to divorce each other. Whether the announcement, and surely the personal struggle behind it, could have influenced Dudamel’s conducting and the concert this evening was anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, the maturation of Dudamel, as well as the fine form of the Angelenos, ultimately underwrote a pleasant evening.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.



Gandini Juggling: Smashed

Date: March 18, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Juggling, according to the program notes, is essentially a mastery over the “fundamental force of gravity”. Passing patterns, velocities and angles define not only relationships between two juggling hands but between two or more jugglers. The movements of pieces traveling mid-air, as well as the movements of the jugglers’ bodies and limbs, provide plenty of kinetic vocabulary to complete a masterpiece of choreographed drama.

Between its traditional role in a circus act in ancient Greece and Rome, and its status as a black-tie type of high art in the 18th and 19th centuries, juggling has a long and varied history. Juggling patterns have also been studied extensively in mathematical terms. Yet, as an entertainment device, it has nearly always been considered a sidekick to a wider circus act or an ambient backdrop in a movie’s crowd scene (see Casablanca, Hook etc.) With Gandini, juggling is vaulted to the forefront of theater: the act is well choreographed, while protagonists display distinct emotions and projecting living characters. Kati Ylä-Hokkala, Gandini’s artistic director and star performer, communicates with a sweet smile and gazing eyes, even as she busily juggles four to five items while crisscrossing the stage on strapped heels. Francesca Mari nurses a cool, if not also pesky, figurine who can throw as mean a smile at you as five (or six!) items rapidly in mid-air. Malte Steinmetz plays the part of a German-speaking joker who acts (and even looks the part of!) Cosmo Kramer, while Tedros Girmaye shines as the hilarious Donkey to Gandini’s collective Shrek. Girmaye not only juggles but performs incredible acrobatic acts too: in fact, before joining Gandini he has done time with Cirque du Soleil. Tensions ebb and flow during a performance, but tends to build whenever jugglers begin to throw items into mid-air and at each other in a perfectly choreographed web of cacophony: the utter concentration involved belies yet perfectly contrasts a lethargic, taped soundtrack of a Bach sarabande. In another, when items dance cooperatively in a three-item cascade just as Jack Little’s I’ve Always Wanted to Dance in Berlin play in the background, an air of relaxed serenity permeates. This communicative power is a culmination of more than twenty years of Gandini’s experimentation using juggling as a medium of communication. Whoever believes juggling is merely an act involving quick hands with neither dramatic quality nor impact should most certainly rethink that position.

If robots can juggle perfectly, then Smashed seeks to highlight that its juggling is performed by real, breathing human beings. Whether deliberate or by accident, items do occasionally, or eventually, get smashed (hence the act’s title). What makes juggling such a dramatic art form (at the hands of the Gandini folks) is not only the perfection resulting from the kinetic relationships between limbs and flying items, but the prospect (and hence the inevitable suspense) that an item may eventually face the natural laws of gravity. With Smashed, the Gandini eleven shows us why choreographed juggling is not only an electrifying but a legitimate form of theater.

Gandini Juggling: Smashed

Gandini Juggling: Smashed in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Chamber music and recital

Mikhail Rudy: Recital

Date: March 15, 2015 (matinee)
Location: City Hall, Hong Kong.

The Sound of Colours (Animated film by Mikhail Rudy)
Gluck/Sgambati – Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice
Mozart – Fantasia in D minor, K397
Wagner/Liszt – Isolde’s Liebestod, S447
Debussy – Étude pour les quartes, Étude pour les huit doigts
Ravel – La valse

Mikhail Rudy, the Russian-born pianist who gave a recital at Marc Chagall’s 90th birthday, was close to the painter in his final years. In 2013, on occasion of the 40th anniversary of The Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, Rudy created The Sound of Colours, a multimedia artwork, with full support from Chagall’s family. The Sound of Colours is essentially a music tableau accompanying an animated video projection of Chagall’s work at the ceiling of Palais Garnier. The music tableau features works by Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel. When arpeggios roll off and chords drop, the static images in Chagall’s work become alive. Ballerinas flex their limbs. Wings flap about. Couples move into a tight embrace. As the music progresses, so does the video projection, each seemingly ready to narrate and adorn the other. When colors flash by on screen, rapid notations promise to serve as a complementary, vibrant counterpoint.

When all tried to come together this afternoon, however, the delivery could not live up to its promise. As a pianist, Rudy was a disappointment. His playing verged towards an unclean, reckless abandon. At 61, he is not expected to be past his prime, but his output sounded as though his fingers were past, if not their physical prime, certainly his train of thoughts. The nervous energy robbed his playing of any chance of substantive conversational power. As an example, unless my hearing was failing that day, Rudy did not press all the keys in the melodic lines of the first phrase in Wagner’s Liebestod – not that, for anyone who could manage Ravel’s La valse – there should be any technical difficulty to do so. Also, as Wagner’s melodic lines wove from the right hand to the left, Rudy seemed to struggle with a proper balance between his hands. This same balance issue surfaced again, even more glaringly, during the second of Rudy’s three encores: a piano reduction of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights in Romeo and Juliet. In both cases, the smudged melodic lines sounded skittish and unconvincing. This deficiency alone was somewhat fatal, because at least in The Sound of Colours, the piano playing was supposed to have some sort of narrating power in parallel to what was projected on screen – the lack of which resulted in a multimedia presentation in which one medium became not a complement of but a burden to the other.

That being said, I admire Rudy as an artist – someone who dares to mix classical with new-age multimedia, and someone who dares to offer a new class of multi-sensual experience. Even though Marc Chagall intended his ceiling motifs to refer to operas and ballets, Rudy’s curation of mostly non-operatic music seems worthy of the visual subjects. Finally, not every 61-year-old could go through a 90-minute program and retain enough juices to entertain three more encores. In the end, the video animation is, to be fair, interesting all by itself, though not necessarily for the price of a concert hall ticket.

Mikhail Rudy in Hong Kong.

Mikhail Rudy in Hong Kong. Image credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Pop, jazz and rap

Bobby McFerrin: Recital

Date: March 13, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

When Bobby McFerrin last visited Hong Kong in 2004, he sang with Eason Chan and Candy Lo. His duet with Eason Chan, My Funny Valentine, garnered rave reviews. Eleven years later, he sang with Madison, his daughter; and spirityouall, his band. Sidekicks have changed, but the ethereal beauty of McFerrin’s voice remains. McFerrin’s voice, effused with an eternal lightness and a soothing quality that can’t be described in words, exhibits therapeutic effects not dissimilar to those offered by gazing aimlessly at white clouds floating in blue sky. McFerrin’s audience is global, but his sound, particularly in this spirityouall World Touroozes with an unmistakably all-American blend of soul, gospel, blues, and rock. From the contemplative meditation of “Glory, Glory” to more robust locomotion of “Joshua”, McFerrin runs his show with a wide range of tempi. A master of audience interaction, he does singalongs with willing audience members who would approach the stage to sing a verse or two of “Whole World (in His/Her Hands)”, with the band in tow. McFerrin’s voice can’t be pigeon-holed into any genre, but by any objective analysis he has a natural gift in syncopated rhythms, and in mixing his chest voice and falsetto to achieve a vibrant fabric of vocal goodness. Even as song lyrics verge towards proselytizing, he sounds grounded and earnest. The highly skilled group of musicians provided much support throughout the evening, but its dramatic highlight belonged to drummer Louis Cato. A multitalented musician, Cato warmed the Cultural Centre with beautiful fret work on acoustic guitar and vocal output, in a solo rendition of “Amazing Grace”. Notwithstanding a brief but annoying intrusion of the sound system by a cellphone nearby, the performance left Cato in tears and McFerrin leaving his position onstage to give the soloist a long embrace. At that very moment, it was as if McFerrin was declaring that his whole world was in his embrace.

Bobby McFerrin in Hong Kong.

Bobby McFerrin in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Orchestral music

Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann: Strauss, Bruckner etc.

Date: February 27 and 28, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27
Strauss – Metamorphosen, Study for 23 Solo Strings
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor

February 28
Liszt – Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Christian Thielemann must be having a ball of his life. As Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle, he also presides over its annual residence at the glittery Salzburg Easter Festival, as well as the annual season of Staatsoper Dresden, the house of Strauss. Perhaps no other job in this universe offers such panoply of orchestral, festival and operatic opportunities, not to mention Thielemann’s relative, and well documented, free reign at the position. With the control of his empire in Dresden secure, it is perhaps not surprising to see him not eagerly (at least not overtly) seeking Berlin’s vacancy, perhaps the most venerable (even if inevitably overrated) conducting job in all of classical music. What Thielemann has offered in two evenings of concerts in Hong Kong shows his deep commitment to continental music and Dresden’s famously golden-hued sound, but leaves the audience wondering if Der Kaiser has the temperament and passion for a wider, more versatile repertoire.

With Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden came out sounding exactly as expected: warm strings, rounded brass, crisp woodwinds. The brass crescendo in the opening bars consumed the space with saintly dignity. At the first drawn out D en tutti, one could feel the walls of the concert hall shaking and the lights fickly dangling onto the ceiling above. But alas, at the slower passages, especially at the first Langsamer passage, the balance of the strings ran amok, with the supportive but delicate phrases of the second violins engulfed completely by the melodic lines of the first violins and the eager resonance of the basses. The legato horn passages, supposedly intended to introduce a nobler composure on top of the strings, did just the opposite: sounding nervous in tone and languid in tune, they instead drew attention and unwanted annoyance away from Bruckner’s melodic commitment. The Scherzo was more interesting, with the playful strings creating a suspenseful opening, echoed resolutely by the brass and percussion in the reply section. Excellent woodwind solos lightened up the spirit, but by the mid-point of the Adagio, there was this feeling that the orchestra was tired and no longer fully committed to the proceedings. Orchestral balance on the whole was adequate but lacked conversational power, solos were precise but offered very little individual expressiveness. Ensemble seemed well coordinated but sounded rather mechanical. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the concert, but herein lies the problem: with so much going on in Bruckner’s score, Thielemann seemed content to unfold the entirety of it without having anything interesting to say.

Ein Heldenleben, Richard Strauss’ 1898 tone poem, came off a lot better, with sharp commitment and ascending energy levels just as the hero’s life is unveiled. In the big forte sections, it was easy to forget about tonal quality and rhythmic precision, but the Dresden musicians here were attentive and alert. The solo violin, depicting the hero’s lady, turned its short passages into sweet depictions of tenderly and flirtatious love. The gigantic brass passages reminded us of Beethoven’s most glorious, which was exactly what Strauss intended to mimic here. As the hero’s life comes to an end and the music slows down, a metaphorical ring of the glorious yesteryear could still be heard in the audience’s collective psyche. Barely a few minutes into the Strauss, details and textures abound, and one could sense a brilliant ensemble at work and a genius at the helm. Dynamics over the entire piece found eruptive pleasures, while the dying passages found solemn dignity. The subject matter was heroic, but it was unmistakable that the evening was the work of an ensemble of skilled human beings. In two evenings of concerts, two orchestras wrestled for the audience’s love, and it was clear which orchestra won.

Despite the lethargic lapses in the Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden gave a fairly representative showcase of its trademarked continental sound. The fiery and festive Ein Heldenleben was only bested momentarily by an encore of Lohengrin’s Act III prelude, which was definitive. Thielemann, with modest but effective movements, was an understated, subtle conductor. But such subtlety, together with Thielemann’s somewhat wooden visage, can be misconstrued as a lack of passion for and connection to the score. Also, with a world-class outfit such as Staatskapelle Dresden, it would be convenient for one to believe that, even if untrue, the ensemble conducts itself. Germans may fall left and right to have another German to lead the Berliners, but if Thielemann ever wanted the position, he needs to offer more.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.