Bricolage by Toolbox Percussion

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.

Bricolage

Bricolage.

Tristan und Isolde

Date: June 18, 2016
Location: Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Attilio Glaser
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Kurwenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
King Marke: Matti Salminen
Shepherd: Peter Maus
Steerman: Seth Carico

Deutsche Oper
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Graham Vick, production

When Wagner conceptualized the music drama, he was heavily influenced by the works of Schopenhauer. The central theme of Schopenhauer –to achieve inner peace through renouncement of desires – seems most evident in Act 3, when Tristan longs for release from his tormented longing for Isolde, or in Act 2, when both Tristan and Isolde seem willing to obtain fulfilment through death. The metaphysical realms of these depictions are a boon to experimental theatrical directors, who to portray these realms use a variety of fantastical devices, whether color, as in Dieter Dorn’s production at the Met; or video, as in Peter Sellars’ production in Paris; or even geometric shapes, as in Katharina Wagner’s production at Bayreuth. Photo-realism is mostly avoided.

Paul Brown’s set in this Graham Vick production is contemporary, reminding us of a luxurious cabin in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. This photo-realism robs the audience of a chance to experience, perhaps through fantastical stagecraft or music, the unknowable reality. Tristan’s death is handled with the hero leaving the stage by going through a door and into a crowd of zombies. After Liebestod, Isolde likewise enters that door, signifying her rejoining with Tristan. In Acts 2 and 3, when the two lovers utter anything in the libretto that points to or sounds like death, stage extras would walk across the stage and scatter flowers on a casket, placed prominently in the middle of the stage. Or, before the first note is sounded, Tristan’s coffin is nailed. Or, in Act 1, the shepherd’s herd is reenacted by actors crawling in four limbs. Or, throughout the entire evening, a lamp the size of a SMART car is used to literally highlight a part of the stage relevant to the ongoing libretto. Even if light (and darkness) has symbolic meaning in the story, why does this have to be labored to such repetitious pathology? These depictions seem almost all too overt and pictorially descriptive, in stark contrast to an ambiguously (deceptively?) represented world or, to a false representation of what we believe as the physical world (?). The production here seems insensitive to the background history behind the piece.

But Tristan und Isolde shines or dies with the vocal cast and the orchestra. With that, the star that outshone all others was Stephen Gould, whose imposing voice, as Tristan, impressed immensely. His handling of the libretto’s words was deutlich, with the kind of regal clarity befitting the voice of a professorial Bundestag politician. Tristan’s fiendishly long phrasings and endings were handled with care. Unlike many North American heldentenors, Gould’s diction was natural and unforced. His top rang with the sort of metallic gloss one finds on a sports car freshly wheeled off from the factory. Compared with his Siegfried I heard in 2009, Gould seemed much more willing to control and pace his vocal output at the outset to avoid coarse shouting closer to the end. Significantly, he probably now owns one of the densest and most stentorian outputs at the lower end of Tristan’s tessitura, not just among his contemporaries but every recorded Tristan I have come across. By the midpoint of his great monologue in Act III, it was clear that he still had plenty of reserve power and did not sound tired at all. A high A-natural was ever-so-slightly mishandled in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben”, in his monologue lamenting his betrayal of Marke, but it neither disturbed the audience nor the singer himself.

Nina Stemme has perhaps the most reliable and steady Wagnerian voice today. She never shouts, and even if it sounds like shouting she does not look uncomfortable or overparted. One of her greatest gifts is a consistently perfect pitch, which allows more of the intricate chordal and chromatic interplay between Isolde’s voice and the orchestra’s to come through. Her legato passages, especially as the drama built up to the extinguishing of the light, oozed like warm cheese. The reliability of her voice could present a liability as well, as it lacks that tiny bit of fragility that, in my opinion, could be desirable in Isolde: after all, Isolde has to face loneliness, as well as a dying/dead Tristan all by herself. Her calm and steady “Mild und leise” at least added to, though not definitively, a proof of that theory. That being said, singing with reliability is miles better than singing with an undisciplined shrill.

In the Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder”, the vocal outputs were equally matched. Their melodic lines were handled with sincerity and aplomb, all the while navigating together with heart-melting unity. The overall musicianship of the rest of the cast was of the highest caliber. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne carried the day with vocal purity and dramatic persuasion. Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal was rather invisible in Act 1 but warmed up enough to voice clearly and resolutely in Act 3. Jörg Schörner, as Melot, sounded properly angry and stole some luster from Tristan, as it should be. Matti Salminen starred triumphantly as Marke, portraying the king with regal composure in Act 1 and wretched devastation in Act 3. At curtain call, there was a short ceremony in which he was feasted with applause and flowers, as the evening’s performance turned out to be last stage performance.

Donald Runnicles, usually a reliable Wagnerian, conducted an orchestra who, for the most part, lingered without much to say. Passages that are supposed to sound ruhig came out lifeless. Heftig passages appeared grotesque. Solo violins and violas had no problem pumping out the right phrases but sounded coarse and tired. The star of the evening, crucially, was Chloe Payot, whose handling of the cor anglais passages was magnificently klipp und klar. In the orchestra’s defense, the general lack of a cohesive soul in the playing could be due to an exhausted orchestra having done evenings of Mozart (Abduction), Verdi (Trovatore) and Puccini (Tosca) on consecutive days prior to this Tristan performance.

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo copyright: Bettina Stöß.