Fidelio

Date: June 25, 2015
Location: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

Jaquino: Nicholas Phan
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Leonore: Nina Stemme
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

concert performance

Beethoven’s only opera is not an easy one to conduct: beginning effectively as a singspiel, its orchestration becomes denser and more complicated, eventually finishing off in a lengthy, majestic choral finale. A measured and gradual buildup, spanning the entire performance, could pay off handsomely. The San Francisco Symphony found solid leadership in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led with great patience and control. The septuagenarian conductor put a tight leash on Beethoven’s dynamics and dramatic dynamism until the end, where choral and orchestral wildfires finally spilled all over Davies in their full and unabated glory.

But first, the soloists. If Nina Stemme was not to be as widely acclaimed a Wagnerian specialist as she already is, she would surely be suffixed as the Leonore of our times. Very few sopranos could pull off the tessitura challenge of the role, but Stemme handled it with superb care and the sort of ease that characterizes all top singers in their prime (Stemme is most definitely in her prime right now.) Even without a production set to project onto, her dramatic instincts were genuine and emotionally fulfilling, without an inkling of forced acting. With “Abscheulicher”, she made meanings — of Leonore’s despair, hope, consolation, and steadfast resolution — out of mere words. Brandon Jovanovich, as Florestan, came off at his entrance sounding slightly hoarse and dry, but for obvious reasons that only enhanced, not hindered, his characterization of Beethoven’s imprisoned and impoverished hero. As the night wore on, it seemed clear that Jovanovich’s voice, purely on lyrical terms, was not at its most behaved; but his fearless approach to Florestan’s high notes revealed a committed musician who was willing to risk it all for his audience. In that respect, Jovanovich was Fidelio, and Fidelio was Jovanovich. The tenor would win the hearts of the audience, and the audience showed their love at his curtain call. Not everything portended perfectly: Beethoven’s robust Overture (first version) sounded stale and weighed on the deep lull of San Francisco’s summer. Crisp timpani action was dulled by the occasionally lifeless and mechanical upper strings, while the mostly brilliant horn playing was sometimes negated by a few parched notes.

Beethoven first premiered Fidelio at Theater an der Wien in November 1805, a few months after he debuted (in April of that year) his Third Symphony, in the same hall. The two pieces, written and presented at a time of Napoleon’s dramatic rise, represent a coherent vision of Beethoven’s political ideology: Fidelio exhibits the composer’s great passion for the common man’s liberty and freedom, while Eroica presents a hero who champions democratic and anti-despotic ideals. Both pieces require, in my opinion, a similar structural understanding of this ideological subject matter, the execution of which probably prefers an overarching ensemble control and orchestral narration over bursts of fiery brilliance. Here, Tilson Thomas showcased the sort of steady nobility and unwavering control that remained regrettably unfulfilled in van Zweden’s Eroica a fortnight ago.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony's Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony’s Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

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HK Phil/Yuja Wang

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

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9
Beethoven – Symphony No. 3

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

Yuja Wang, who has cultivated an image of a fiery pianist conquering with ease every finger-breaking Russian piece available to mankind, is not known to be an interpreter of Mozart. On this occasion, she showed why she was not: her playing was somewhat distanced from the composition, and her reliance on the printed score in front of her, no matter how infrequently she referred to it, seemed to hinder her interpretation of the music. Conductor Jaap van Zweden indulged her further with the luxury of the occasional ritardando that could irritate Mozartean purists. Climactic passages came off sounding too contemporary and edgy for Mozart’s time. The ebb and flow of Mozart’s cadences reminded us more of Schubert’s wandering journey to death, or of the hypnotic flow of Brahms’ love poetry, than of the mature, steady classicism that a mid-career Mozart was supposed to offer. That said, Alfred Einstein would have agreed that this particular Mozart, with its impetuous and glorious tendencies, was far ahead of its time. Perhaps that was what Wang was going after here, but the end product, if not also the manner in which the output was produced, was rather unconvincing. Wang’s two encores – Horowitz’s Carmen variations and her variation of Rondo alla turca – were memorable in the sense that she was unabashedly relentless in showing off her fingering skills and not much else. When tempo seemed bottlenecked by impossible fingering, her finger would flash faster, with even more fiery brilliance. Between plenty of flashy displays of technique and speed, there was very little musicality to speak of. After intermission was Beethoven Third, the piece that Einstein found etymologically comparable to Mozart’s concerto. The orchestra’s intonation this evening was accurate and focused, and the musicians seemed to genuinely enjoy making music together. The brass section could sound a little too brash, or the strings a little too golden (perhaps too much Wagner recently?), but the output’s overall focus and balance must be commended with no reservation, especially as compared with the Philharmonic merely a few years ago. That said, van Zweden’s approach to Eroica failed to live up to heightened expectations. Narrative power is required of the piece which is essentially a totemic embodiment of Beethoven’s idealistic hero. Van Zweden’s execution this evening seemed to favor transient dramatic brilliance over narrative dramaturgy. The result was an Eroica beaming with occasional brilliance but lacking an interpretative voice, in much the same way that Wang’s concerto performance occurred with sparks but without having much to say.

Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil

Date: June 7, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Rachmaninoff – All Night Vigil, op. 37 (1, 3, 7, 8, 11, 12)

The Hong Kong Bach Choir
Jerome Hoberman, choral director

Rachmaninoff’s seminal work, All Night Vigil, radiates majesty and spiritual warmth in a deeply religious, cathartic experience. The melodic lines, often melancholic, reflect not only Rachmaninoff’s trademark compositional tendency but the mood of the times in which the piece (1915) was composed. War with Germany and Austria-Hungary was at full rage; youngsters were sent to the front lines without training while food and heating fuel were in short supply back home. As casualties mounted and the general population was demoralized, there was a lingering sensation of the Tsarist Russia’s twilight. In this evening, the canticle selections (e.g. selections 1 and 3) reflected some of that sentiment, with The Choir carefully but forcefully setting the somber color tone, sending a chill through our spine. In the brighter passages, The Choir warmed the air with regal prowess. In terms of vocal quality, The Choir ushered in a fine layering of sonority, though even at the fortissimo its voice tended to get sucked up by the concert hall’s dry acoustics, which was not by default suitable for a deeply religious, resonating choral experience. The Choir’s diction was not always crystal clear; the female voices dominated their male counterparts; and the Russian nasal hovered with some artificial unease. Further, any desire to probe deeper into the spirit of the text seemed somewhat distracted by efforts to control intonation, dynamics and overall sectional balance. Overall, the Choir nevertheless made a decent impression with enough harmonic buoyancy and grace, in a relentless work that required a nauseating amount of precision, temperament and conviction. In addition, there seemed to be a conscientious and collective effort to make good music and sound, for which Music Director Jerome Hoberman, often seen tonight steeped into the spiritual vastness of Rachmaninoff’s composition, must be seriously commended. Hoberman’s program notes, meticulously written and filled with a ton of educational information, also left us an excellent example of how to communicate properly with the audience.

The Hong Kong Bach Choir.

The Hong Kong Bach Choir.

Paquita/Bolero/Le Carnaval

Date: May 30, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Petipa – Paquita Grand Pas Classique
Preljocaj – Le Parc final pas de deux
Edwaard Liang – Letting Go (world première)
Yuh Egami & Ricky Hu – Bolero (world première)
Ratmansky – Le Carnaval des Animaux

Hong Kong Ballet

The Hong Kong Ballet’s 2014/15 season closes with a mixed bill, with works by Petipa, Preljocaj and Ratmansky, as well as two world premières by Asian choreographers. The programming is as vast as the cast bill luxurious: Jurgita Dronina, Principal at the Dutch National Ballet who is recently appointed Guest Principal Dancer of the HK Ballet, handles Paquita; Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet, both big stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, team up in Le Parc; and Tan Yuan Yuan, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet and long-time Guest Principal Dancer of the HK Ballet, dances the female role in Edwaard Liang’s new work.

On paper, Dronina, 29, is one of the most gifted dancers in the world today. Joining the Royal Swedish Ballet at nineteen, she was promoted to Principal at 23. A year later, she became Principal at the Dutch National Ballet, where she remains since. Had her performance as Paquita in Hong Kong this evening been more compelling, she would have lived up to her resumé. Alas, she did not. Her initial entrance was marred with hesitation: in attitude, her working leg slouched; her legs looked heavy, and her arms lethargic. There was not enough stamina (certainly not enough for the all-consuming effort that is Paquita’s GPC), and her movements were not sharp. In Paquita’s signature fouettes, because Dronina could not manage to start with the right angular velocity, the final turns ground to a slow, uncomfortable finish. In the interim, she tried too hard to re-accelerate but ended up mis-aligning her hips and almost tipping over. When her focus seemed lacking, Dronina’s short limbs (at least by Russian standards, though no fault of her own) make any onstage adjustments that much more herculean. Wei Wei, dancing the role of Lucien, performed with neither grave mistake nor the sort of satisfaction-inducing excitement. In his main variation, he missed a few steps and finished his fouettés with shaky sauté landings. The four main soloists of Gao Ge, Dong Ruixue, Yui Sugawara and Naomi Yuzawa infused much-needed stability and generous excitement, especially the last two, while the rest of the cast caused no harm but was predictably average.

Le Parc was impressive not only because it looked fresh despite being over two decades old (created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1994), but because it stood out as a fine piece of theatrical choreography in contrast with Petipa’s GPC before and Egami/Hu’s work after (see more below). When Renavand and Magnenet danced, they moved with a weightless beauty, like feathers floating in a sleepy summer drift. Their bodies responded well to each other: when one body roared with physicality, the other retracted in submission. Comparing Renavand/Magnenet with the role-creating pair Guérin/Hilaire in 1994, the original pair effuses more sensual pleasure, while the current pair beams more melancholic sadness. It would be hard to deduce from the dancers’ chiffon tops that the piece explores facets of 17th century French nobility and social etiquette, yet there was no mistake that the two Paris Opera Ballet dancers were dancing a narrative of love. In one thrilling scene, they started kissing, followed first by Renavand embracing Magnenet’s upper body and then by Magnenet turning in position, swirling Renavand’s body around like a hammer throw. This rotating motion could have been vulgar or cartoonish, but in the hands of two experts of the art, in front of a dark-hued background, the pair danced as though two pieces of soft, white chiffons waltzed in mid-air with no earthly triviality or measly hindrance. Here, love flourishes, and fairytale ensues.

Edwaard Liang’s choreography found equally worthy interpreters in Tan Yuan Yuan and Liang himself. Tan’s lines, always perfect and sensual, moved around Liang’s body with a coy but sweet coziness. Her feet landed with precision and security, while her arms, visage and fingers embellished with pristine refinement. Tan’s execution dazzled with immaculate technique, but, in her trademark display, she did not flaunt them.

In Bolero, the choreography team of Yuh Egami & Ricky Hu seems to set the dance against a story in a psychiatric hospital, with the patient eventually succumbing to some sort of physical/mental condemnation. Imagine, as the music of Bolero gets louder and more complex, the patient becomes more agitated, with less and less self-control, and eventually incapacitated. Forcing a program onto Ravel’s formal work seemed awkward at best and sacrilegious at worst. (That being said, any sort of purely formal display will inevitably attract comparison with Maurice Béjart’s masterpiece, immortalized by Maya Plisetskaya.) In terms of choreography, there were a few snippets of juicy corp moves (dressed in black, with head gear) that placed emphasis on masculine prowess. The company’s male dancers executed well, with synchronized precision and a single-minded ability to project some sort of demonic powers. This type of choreography seemed inherited partially from Eifman’s brutal physicality and Ratmansky’s neoclassical motions with synchronized arms and feet, but the rest of the product (especially the choreography of the two leads) seemed lacking communicative power and expansiveness. The leads, Liu Yu-yao and Lucas Jerkander, executed the practiced moves with agile familiarity and thoughtful care, but looked as if they were unsure where to place or project their emotions. Movements were occasionally frantic but came with no inspiration; busy stage work was mechanically interesting but seemed distracting. Overall, the dancing was not particularly memorable (other than the corp parts with the demons), while the Bolero team seems to have over-designed the set and props.

Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval had some charming and corny moments, including deliberate onstage mistakes, as well as spoofs of well-known ballet choreography. As a whole, however, it failed simply because it begged for too much cheap (and juvenile!) laughs while offering very little thoughtful commentary by way of dance. Perhaps irony is exactly what the iconoclastic Ratmansky has in mind.

HK Ballet's season closing mixed bill.

HK Ballet’s season closing mixed bill.