Orchestral music

Verbier Festival Chamber/Cheung/Capuçon

Date: March 23, 2018
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Symphony No. 35, K.385
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58
Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 33
Schubert – Symphony No. 5, D.485

Encores:

J. Strauss II – Hungarian Polka Op. 332
Rossini – Overture to Guillaume Tell (with a twist)

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
Gabor Takács-Nagy, conductor
Rachel Cheung (piano)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)

The fervent energy of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra capped off an exciting month of programming at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Culled from the best musicians from professional orchestras around the world, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra is currently touring in Asia and the Middle East, as part of its celebration of the Festival’s 25th anniversary. This evening, Gabor Takács-Nagy led the procession, with joyous and jubilant reading of the Mozart and the Schubert. With the beginning of Schubert, Takács-Nagy’s phrasing and dynamic control led us into a world of agony, the sort of wandering misery that Schubert is fond of projecting. But Schubert never intends his fifth symphony as a treatise on romanticism. Instead, he aims to allude to the classical era where formalities in harmony are at the forefront, and the piece would develop as such. The seamless transition in the interim is what made this evening most interesting: the orchestral sound ebbed and flowed, but what seemed to be an emerging didactic imagery slowly but surely gave way to pure sonorous beauty. Takács-Nagy’s handling of the call and response between the upper strings and lower strings in the final movement was one that conjured up less of visual symbolism than a professorial pursuit of harmonic balance. Never mind that Takács-Nagy tended to tap his shoes along with the music, thus revealing his perhaps even more illustrious past as a chamber musician: as an orchestral conductor, he was thoughtful, vivacious, and complete.

Cheung is a gifted pianist who gave a thoughtful display of perhaps Beethoven’s most lyrical piano concerto. Her intonation, especially in the slower second movement, was ethereal and controlled. In the faster passages, Cheung’s performance was handicapped by a Steinway piano muddling away, especially in the middle registers, and seemingly unwilling to project more clarity that perhaps Cheung, and most certainly Beethoven, surely would have sought. Capuçon’s cello lines had long, overarching phrasings that wove nicely with the orchestral lines. Melodic subjects were repeated with slight tweaks to intonation to yield a richly woven fabric of sound. If Cheung was seeking perfection in individual notes, Capuçon was clearly more committed to channeling meaning through shapely and refined paragraphs. Two encore pieces followed: a cheerful Hungarian Polka, by Strauss II, and a vocal-only rendition of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell overture (yes, orchestra members sang the overture) that confirmed just how much fun members of this festival orchestra are having on their tour.

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Ballet and dance

Whipped Cream

Date: March 22, 2018
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Boy: Daniil Simkin
Princess Praline: Sarah Lane
Princess Tea Flower: Hee Seo
Prince Coffee: Cory Stearns
Prince Cocoa: Joseph Gorak
Don Zucchero: Blaine Hoven
Chef/Doctor: Alexei Agoudine
Marianne: Catherine Hurlin
Ladislav: Duncan Lyle
Boris: Roman Zhurbin

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Richard Strauss completed scores for only two ballets, one of which is Whipped Cream, premiered in 1924. The story tells of a boy who, after overindulging on whipped cream, falls ill and starts to hallucinate and dream of a world of dancing confections. The original production, with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, was meant to bring back memories of the glorious yesteryear, with veiled references to the preferred bygone days of (perhaps) the Hapsburg Empire. Alas, that premiere did not go well with the Austrian public; any nostalgic feelings were quickly nullified by the brutal reality during this period of First Republic: hyperinflation ran rampant, and Austrians (and much of the German-speaking Europe) were barely making their ends meet. Strauss resorted to defending himself by explaining that he merely wanted to create joy, but the ballet’s exuberance in the eyes of the impoverished public left such a bad taste that it was mothballed for much of the rest of the composer’s life.

ABT’s revival of Whipped Cream (albeit with new choreography) during one of modern age’s longest bull markets seems timely. Unemployment has been inching downwards (at least in America). Inflation remains stubbornly low. The majority of Americans is not impoverished by any modern standard. In this production, premiered last year, Alexei Ratmansky douses the Company with copious amount of busy choreography, with demanding jumps and turns for both men and women. Sure enough, Mark Ryden’s set and costumes have all the trappings of a gilded age that, while referencing a distant past, echoes a prosperous society in which we are supposedly living in. But is that true? Income disparity has been severe and getting worse; social inequity has been exacerbated by political hacks unwilling to reverse the status quo. And yet we all feel comfortable with the sets and costumes, as if we have become so elitist, and so gilded, that, even if the art is purely escapist and fictional, we could be rendered defenseless if accused of losing perspective and insight into the deeper, perhaps unseen, problems in society? If we can’t find the repugnance of an elitist art amidst poverty and injustice in the same manner that ballet goers found repugnance a century ago, what does it say about the ballet goers today? Are we elevating ballet to an elitist art form so much so that we could see, and relish seeing, the art as a narcissistic reflection of ourselves, while conveniently forgetting, if only for the fleeting moment, the rest of humanity who could barely make their ends meet, in this gilded age in the 21st century?

Ballet remains an elite, not necessarily elitist, art form – one that requires world-class training and hard work. For all the potential trappings of an elitist evening, this evening’s performance was undoubtedly a showcase of the elite. Daniil Simkin was sensational as the Boy, a role he created last year. His boyish and fun portrayal was in stark contrast to performances seen earlier: as Romeo, and in Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois” (in Taipei, in 2017, not reviewed). His grand écarts were bouncy and weightless, bending up well past the 180-degree line. His coupé jetés encircling the stage were so smooth and effortless, as if he was a wild animal roaming on four legs in free land. Sarah Lane, as Princess Praline, displayed strong upper-body strength, and acted with passion and commitment. Her jumps were, at least on this occasion, lacking suspension en l’air. Both Cory Stearns and Hee Seo had good evenings juggling between Ratmansky’s fiendishly complex choreography and dramatic eloquence, but between themselves, a chemistry languished aside. Blaine Hoven’s muscular movements as Don Zucchero were decisive without losing the role’s comedic angle. Joseph Gorak’s excellent Prince Cocoa reminded us how even a secondary role could enliven an evening’s experience, much in the way that a scintillating Mercutio could lift the entire experience of Romeo and Juliet. Catherine Hurlin starred brightly as Marianne, another secondary role. Hurlin’s flexible body untangled Ratmansky’s choreography with fluidic and seemingly painless ease. One would be forgiven for deeming her outstanding performance, coupled with genuine eye contact and ebullient smiles, the brightest star of the evening. Ratmansky’s choreography for corps was busy but not frenzied, and accorded soloists with extended solo sequences that well-matched the long arches of Strauss’ phrases. The final grand pas, filled with classical steps and references to the Le Corsaire and Don Quixote of the ballet world, romped with uninhibited abundance and fanfare.

Ormsby Wilkins, a resolute leader, gave a measured reading of Strauss’ score. The orchestra executed with clinical precision, and was trouble-free all evening save for a minor blip in the high horn passages towards the end. More emphasis on carving out long Straussian phrasings, instead of meticulously shaping individual notes’ intonation, would have been preferred. Mark Ryden’s set was astoundingly beautiful, with warm colors and creative props. A trolley which the Boy would eventually climb atop to claim the figurative confectionery crown was wonderfully decorated; it was also used only once. The theatre filled with a jolly good spirit. In the context of the society in which the production is performed, whether it can be considered lavish or wasteful, or both, is a matter that deserves to be debated on another day.

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Opera

Pelléas et Mélisande

Date: March 15, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Arkel: Alfred Reiter
Geneviève: Leah-Marian Jones
Pelléas: Jacques Imbrailo
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Jurgita Adamonyté
Yniold: Rebecca Bottone
Doctor: Stephen Wells

The Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera

Lothar Koenigs, conductor
David Pountney, director

Pelléas et Mélisande, unlike Tristan und Isolde, is not an opera about its eponymous characters. The main character is Golaud — Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’ half-brother — who could not come to terms with the force of destiny. Golaud would witness (and cause) the title characters to die, survive the both of them, yet be unceremoniously dismissed by Arkel as an after thought at the drama’s end. There is no hero, nor is there even a scripted downfall of the hero. The opera’s characters — and we — are all shaped and swept away by destiny. If Debussy’s free-flowing harmony does not already drive home the point that his is not, or is unglued from all influences of Wagner’s, the characters’ destiny most certainly does.

Where Golaud is central to this framework, Pountney’s production brings Mélisande more to the fore. The implication does not necessarily divert attention entirely away from Golaud, but the effort seems to put Mélisande on equal footing. The production set includes a spiraling tower in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a moat of water. The spiraling tower is fashioned in the form of a 50-feet tall skeleton topped with a skull the size of a small sedan. This skeleton tower remains there for the entire opera, and must surely signify something: that people (mostly men) traverse in and out of the skeleton throughout the opera probably signifies a carcass of a woman being trampled upon constantly, as though a stone-faced woman is to be raped so repeatedly as to have lost what remains of her soul and spirit, leaving merely the physical being to be ravaged. Could that be Mélisande? Dozens of chains hanging from the rafters above signify the entrapment of something. Could a spirit be entrapped in a spiritless physical being that reincarnates? In Pountney’s framework, the answers to the above seem to be in the positive: Mélisande is a recurring spirit being brought out by the shepherd. When she dies physically, her child is literally reduced into a puff of smoke, just as Debussy’s music resolves to a close. During the scene when Yniold is looking for his ball, Mélisande reincarnates as the stone that Yniold is unable to turn over. Yniold, focusing on the ball, is probably oblivious to this fact, but Pountney here seems to tie Mélisande as a morphing spirit of nature. If the stone in Debussy/Maeterlinck’s vision is to depict a world where no one can see let alone control his destiny, Mélisande in Pountney’s treatment seems to transcend above and beyond that. The fact that Mélisande is looking at the audience, smiling, while fiddling the ball away from Yniold, seems to suggest that Mélisande is in it with us — the audience. She may not be dictating fate, but she, and the audience, already knows the truth that Golaud so desperately wants to know: that fate shall run its course. Here, the reincarnating Mélisande is not comparable to Kundry precisely because she is also in it with the audience.

Jurgita Adamonyté’s voice were gentle, while her diction was easy on the ears. Jacques Imbrailo nurtured his lines with security and lyrical beauty. If Pelléas was a youthful representation of Maeterlinck himself, then, by Imbrailo’s depiction, Maeterlinck was certainly an innocent, blossoming young man ready to be loved and love. Violence to woman is horrific enough, but Golaud’s violence to a pregnant woman was here so repulsive, no matter how familiar the opera is to the audience, as to cause a few gasps from the auditorium. Christopher Purves’s Golaud simmered with remorseless evil. His voice was stentorian yet delineated with care, especially when he presented his departing recitatives. Where Rebecca Bottone’s voice lacked depth, she compensated with careful nourishing of Yniold’s lines. Bottone should excel in smaller houses, perhaps in Mozartean/Purcellian roles. Unlike other Arkels who would typically use rhythmic precision to accord a more devilish angle, Alfred Reiter’s portrayal was more free flowing and, to his credit, more agreeable with Debussy’s musical intention. Lothar Koenigs did a remarkable job shaping Debussy’s lines with aplomb – dramatic enough to stir, but not overt enough to draw attention. There were short bursts of moments when the orchestra sounded assertive, almost Wagnerian, especially during the scene changes, but overall it was sublime, lingering in a comfortable and non-obtrusive dynamic range.

WNO’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo credit: HKAF.

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