Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

Date: October 25, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Dowland – In Darkness Let Me Dwell
Britten (arr. Julian Bream) – Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex (from Gloriana)
Argento – Chopin to a Friend, Schubert to a Friend (from Letters from Composers)
Schubert – Die Mainacht, D. 194
Der König in Thule, D. 367
An die Musik, D. 547
Ständchen, No.4 (from Lieder aus Schwanengesang, D. 957)
Britten – Songs from the Chinese

INTERMISSION

Chinese Traditional Song (arr. Xuefei Yang) – Fisherman’s Song at Eventide (Guitar solo)
Debussy (arr. Julian Bream) – La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (Guitar solo)
Falla – Homenaje, le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (Guitar solo)
Falla (arr. Xuefei Yang) – Spanish Dance No.1 (from La Vida Breve) (Guitar solo)
Goss – Book of Songs
Dowland – Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now
Invite
White as Lilies was Her Face
My Thoughts are Winged with Hopes
Flow My Tears
In Darkness Let Me Dwell

Ian Bostridge, tenor
Xuefei Yang, guitar

It is rather unbelievable that Ian Bostridge, an acclaimed and prolific tenor who has traveled all around the world giving recitals and concerts, has never, until this evening, set foot on a public concert stage in Hong Kong. Contrast that with guitarist Xuefei Yang, his partner in tonight’s program who, as a teenager, made her Hong Kong debut some two decades ago. This voice/guitar combo has been touring around the world by dusting off and parading late-Renaissance/early-Baroque gems for voice and early-music string instruments. From works by John Dowland (1563-1626) to those by Stephen Goss (b. 1964), the pair offers materials spanning some four centuries. These materials do not align with an obvious curation, but one theme lingers: the intensity of the human spirit.

In the form of songs, these materials require a capable interpreter who can let emotions flow. Ian Bostridge is certainly one. Well known to be a cerebral performer with a professorial demeanor who meticulously researches the meaning of lyrics before revealing them with a timbre’s heightened scrutiny, Bostridge is never one who skims on lyrics’ emotive power. He is always serious and intense – so intense, that watching his muscles cringe as his voice intensifies sometimes makes the viewer cringe the same. This evening, the intensity of his delivery was more restrained than usual, while his trademarked crisp diction got slightly muffled as it traveled through the evening’s relatively high humidity. But his words still carried lots of weight and meaning: when he sang “Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden” in Schubert’s An die Musik, one could glean from the generosity of his eye contact, his body’s slightly forwarding posture and an anchored, determined timbre that he meant what he sang or, at the very least, he was pleading to the audience to delve deeper into the subject matter.

Xuefei Yang played with the touch of a gentle feline paw, but could jump in with a powerful chord or two with the leaping ferocity of a tiger’s rage. Like all young musicians, she would make mistakes; but unlike them, she did not dwell upon a few wrong notes. As an artist, Yang painted with poetic persuasiveness: in Fisherman’s Song at Eventide, she rendered an image of a lethargic evening filled with gentle choruses and dimming dusk light. Or, in the tense sections of Plucking the Rushes, in Goss’ Book of Songs, Yang’s fiery fingering brought forth heated drama between the voice and the instrument, with Yang all the while synchronizing the ebb and flow by making frequent side glances at Bostridge. Compared with other talented Asian musicians, the Beijing-born Yang genuinely seemed to enjoy the process of music making, indicated in part by her friendly demeanor as she talked about the various solos after the intermission. Nevertheless, she remained trapped in one aspect that befell most promising Asian musicians: the non-sense that technically difficult pieces would surely please the crowd. In Falla’s Spanish Dance No.1, a piece rearranged by Yang for two hands when it was meant for four, Yang spent all her attention to the finger-breaking fretboard action, and ended up sounding dragged, exhausted and spiritless. The devil of a job neither pleased nor awed. The inviting expressiveness, so eloquently displayed in Fisherman’s Song at Eventide just a few minutes before, remained unsatisfactorily absent here.

Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

HK Sinfonietta/Penderecki

Date: October 24, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Penderecki – Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor)
James Cuddeford (violin)

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, heretofore playing second fiddle to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the city’s better funded and higher profile cousin, should be congratulating its management and musicians for programming the ambitious and hard-to-please program featuring Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. Both pieces are twentieth century gems, basking in glorious critical reviews but lingering in the dark corners of the general public’s memory and imagination. One reason is that both pieces bordered, though did not entirely infringe upon, the atonal. Another reason is that both pieces do not offer so much of a reputable melody as a seemingly deliberate encryption thereof – purists may even find snippets of Shostakovich’s melodic tributes as sophomoric violations of plagiarism, and conclude the music to be an unconvincing original piece of art.

But controversy, coupled with newness in musical composition, is precisely the catalytic ingredients to an adventurous evening. Contrast that with the HK Phil’s conservatism (see here, here and here), there is much to be savored in tonight’s program. It helps that the concerto was led by the composer himself, and anchored by James Cuddeford, Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s concertmaster. Visually, Penderecki seemed to be a patient, unassertive type of maestro, who was ready to let the musicians present themselves in their most authentic way. Hong Kong Sinfonietta has not over the years developed a clear and trademarked style, but in front of Penderecki they seemed extremely alert and sensitive, especially to accents and notations. Winds sounded attentive, while strings charged with cohesive intelligence. James Cuddeford’s effort was nothing less than a musical and visual spectacle. His bowing was fluid and faultless, and his stopping and plucking supreme. Penderecki’s piece yearns for the interpreter’s interpretation, of which Cuddeford offered plenty here. Notations became Cuddeford’s train of thoughts, unleashed into the auditorium with a soulful being that loomed with gravity and presence. Cuddeford’s body swerved with Penderecki’s hauntingly beautiful melody, while melodic mood changes seemed readily reflected on the violinist’s well-chiseled, front cover-worthy face. Bowing and fingering could appear fragile and incomplete, but sounded crisp and solvent. As Cuddeford weaved through some of the quietest solo passages in Penderecki’s mystic work, his violin worked in ways that were serenely ephemeral but cryptic – as if he was spraying intergalactic dust onto the most silent, uninhabited space in universe’s most infinite expanse of nothingness. The capacity crowd at City Hall held their breath in suspense throughout much of the piece, fully realizing that the moment could quite possibly be the orchestra’s finest on record.

Less can be said of the Shostakovich which came after intermission, though the musicians were not to blame. If anything, the incredible performance of the Penderecki seemed to boost the musicians’ confidence. The beginning Allegretto was meticulously presented by the woodwinds and gallantly supported by the strings section, which was buffed up from the concerto’s leaner configuration. Trouble began in Adagio – Largo, when children’s noises started to creep into the auditorium. The noises seemed to arrive from behind the doors of the balcony section (which was closed for this particular concert), and did not subside for the rest of the movement. The treacherous brass phrases in pianissimo were completely breached by this profanity, and flushed into the toilet together with the musicians’ collective focus. Brass started to sound incoherent; strings sounded frigidly cautious, and percussion was barely able to hold onto Shostakovich’s intense rhythmic integrity. The third movement – a tribute to Wagner’s various operas – could not be more disastrous as the most intimate passages, including those somber passages featuring Siegfried’s death, were completely trespassed by the undiminished noises from outside the auditorium. This noise finally subsided in the final movement, but left a foul taste in the listeners’ collective memory. Penderecki would not have been pleased with this situation. If anything could be scavenged from this upheaval, as well as the collective destruction of musicians’ focus and the music, it would be a fitting memorial to a composition that paralleled, if not also reflected, the composer’s failing health and imminent death.

As the concert drew to a close, the orchestra was greeted with rounds of thunderous applause and waves of ovations – perhaps as a compliment to its ability to hold together despite the intrusion, for which the management of City Hall should be held entirely responsible. While the mishap dented the stupendous effort of the first half of the evening, there is no question that, by pulling off a risky programming, the management and programmers of the orchestra could now hold its head high, even with the city’s other orchestra in mind.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.