Chamber music and recital

HK Bach Choir/Hoberman: 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.

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Chamber music and recital

DiDonato/Il Pomo d’Oro: Baroque recital

Date: May 6, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Arguably the most anticipated program of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, Drama Queens, is also its last. The program, which has been on tour all over the world for the past few years and featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, offered a vocal compendium of high drama of the royal characters in 17th and 18th century operas. The collection of lesser-known laments/arias is procured from a repertoire that, at least in this part of the world, deserves more play time on the recital circuit.

On purely technical grounds, DiDonato has not demonstrated the sort of demanding breathing technique and ornamentation execution that one would expect from a tried-and-true Baroque expert. For example, in “Intorno all’idol mio”, from Antonio Cesti’s Orontea, DiDonato’s intense vibrato somewhat muffled the precision of Baroque’s ornamentation. Her timbre radiated with a dramatic warmth, but her phrasings and breathing points were often found to be misaligned with the instrumental background, and could not produce the sort of calibrated exactitude that one would expect from this repertoire. Having said that, DiDonato dazzled in every way. Her voice was assertive and captivating, and the emotion let out from her timbre felt authentic and genuine. Her vocal output, and more importantly her facial expressions, exhibited a vivid cinematic wonder of anger, bitterness, bliss, sorrow etc. In Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s “Da torbida procella” from Berenice, DiDonato handled the impossibly fast coloratura passages with stunning effortlessness and a scorching thrill. In each rendition of the da capo passage, she delighted the audience with varying sentimentality and technical brilliance. Her encore of Reinhard Keiser’s “Let Me Weep” was absolutely riveting, when she caressed her pianissimos as though they were her long-lost baby. Throughout the evening, she would throw out high notes with resolute abandon (by rushing air flow through her larynx) to gain maximum dramatic effect, yet with nary a hint of uncontrolled recklessness that often tires or damages even the most well-trained vocal assets.

Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro supported DiDonato’s vocal efforts with aplomb, and proved to be more than just a reliable accompaniment, especially in the fiery, attention-seeking da capo passage in the Orlandini. DiDonato’s outrageous Mohawk hairdo could use more restraint in temperament, while her flaming red gown, specially designed by Vivienne Westwood for her Drama Queens tour, served as much to wow as, regrettably, to remind us of a raging Kansan BBQ-pit flame. But by all accounts, there was much to be savored in a program that, judging from the frenzied audience response before and after the encores, Hong Kong audience deserves more of.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.

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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.

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Chamber music and recital, Orchestral music

KaJeng Wong/Loo/Music Lab: Ravel, Gershwin etc.

Date: August 4, 2014
Location: City Hall, Hong Kong.

Piano (Mussorgsky-Naoumoff): KaJeng Wong
Piano (Gershwin): Nancy Loo
Orchestra: The Music Lab Orchestra
Conductor: Wilson Ng

This evening program presented Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, followed by Emile Naoumoff’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Visual art works by various local artists, projected onto a gigantic screen above the orchestra, accompanied each musical piece.

Little was said about the premise of the visual art presentation, other than: (1) that the presentation would be related to Hong Kong and (2) that it would co-exist with music on stage. The program notes offered short paragraphs from some of the contributing visual artists, but no overarching explanation of the concept. Even KaJeng Wong, the prodigious 24-year-old and brainchild of the evening’s program, was at loss with words. In between the Debussy and the Ravel, Wong appeared on stage to announce that technicians needed some time to fix a projection problem. In the meantime, he tried unconvincingly to explain his concept. On the spur of the moment, Wong also initiated a makeshift Q&A with various musicians, asking them what they felt about the performance. Violist Samuel Pang, Wong’s childhood classmate, offered a partial bailout by eloquently but somewhat aimlessly stating the obvious — that here was a concert with images of Hong Kong and made by people who grew up in Hong Kong.

The busy streets of Hong Kong, captured in a series of time-lapse photo tableaux by photographer Cheung Chi Wai (張志偉), echoed some of Gershwin’s spirit of optimism in the kaleidoscope of a buzzing city. The amount of work was tedious and immensely time-consuming. As an artwork on its own, Cheung’s product carried a lot of substance and story. Yet when placed next to the music, the speed and color of the tableaux seemed unready to match up with the undulating dynamism of the composition’s tempi and tonal colors.

Nevertheless, better explanations could be found, after the concert, on the web. Oychir (愛卡), the artist responsible for the visual art during the Ravel, explained in her blog that during her creative period, her mind wandered when trying to understand the music, as if lost in space and forever banished from Earth: “感覺自己捉不到那歌,越畫越遠,精神迷路,迷到上太空,回不到地球”. Even Oychir herself blogged about being surprised to hear that the organizers were quite satisfied with her work – albeit in a tone of one who was more curiously puzzled than genuinely satisfied with her output, not necessarily in and of itself but specifically in its relation to this musical concert. In the end, the experimentation juxtaposing live music with visual art failed to impress with real consequence, even though Wong and his team should be commended for daring to try something different in a city where artistic experimentation, especially in respect of classical music, runs dry.

The audio portion of the concert was more refined and interesting. The Music Lab Orchestra, an ensemble effort loosely pieced together with music students and semi-pros, displayed a discernible level of concentration and musicianship rarely found in amateur orchestras. Their balance was elegant, and sections blended en tutti with plenty of credit going to vibrant and attentive conductor Wilson Ng, who was able to conduct most of the evening’s program from memory.

Nancy Loo, Wong’s childhood piano teacher and possibly the most revered piano teacher in Hong Kong in the past half a century, survived the Gershwin without making much of an impactful impression. To be sure, in the lighter legato passages, Loo’s playing was masterful and expansive: she would occasionally temper her pace just enough to offer a more deeply-nuanced, personal touch. But in Gershwin’s starker, faster passages, her fingers weighed on her momentum and interpretation, constricting her output to one of overworked caution. At times, Loo sounded and looked as if she was trying in vain to reach a pace and dynamic she would expect of herself but could not. Ng, standing at her side and often looking over her playing, valiantly kept the piano in synchronization with that of the orchestra. Loo most certainly has played the piece many times over her long and illustrious career as concert pianist and educator, but at least in this particular evening, she managed to show only what seemed to be short glimpses of her former self.

By contrast, KaJeng Wong displayed in the Mussorgsky-Naoumoff piece the sort of pace, power, and determination that were equally desired in Loo’s playing. When Wong dropped his first few chords, all the sound previously carpeted under the Steinway reemerged with flair and power. A former student of the arranging composer, Wong was in his typical self, running through the piano cadenzas with rapid pace and effusing bold confidence not usually seen in pianist of his age. The Mussorgsky-Naoumoff is usually listed as a concerto, but the composition is more akin to a symphonic duet between an orchestra and a piano where much of the musical drama occurs not in unison but via an ebb and flow of call and response. In that respect, the effort between Wong and Ng was a rather satisfying one.

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Chamber music and recital

Sabrina Ma: Recital

Date: July 26, 2014
Location: City Hall Theatre, Hong Kong.

Sabrina Ma has been playing percussion for more than 20 years, and if one pays no attention to her youthful presence on stage and the giddy smile set free after that occasional mishit, Ma looks confident and mature beyond her age. Still in her twenties, Ma has already completed her music education in three continents, roamed around the world competing and collecting trophies, collaborated with artists from different cultures and experimented with pop music and improvisations in inter-disciplinary works. Her recital in Hong Kong this weekend reflected as much her character as her musical journey. Her first number was “Heimlich, still und leise”, a 2013 composition for film by violinist Benedikt Bindewald whereby Ma played a range of percussive instruments over a pre-arranged soundtrack of humming voice and electronic music. With a repetitive but snappy melody, the soundtrack unveiled itself as a sleepy but certain through train. Ma’s playing over, too certain and assured to be improvisatory, nevertheless added ample textural surprises, like a bouncy Wile E. Coyote chasing the cool train of The Road Runner. With Paul Smadbeck’s Rhythm Song, Ma’s second number returned to more traditional fare: Ma showcased her mallet skills, ripping through Smadbeck’s treacherous four-mallet work and seemingly ready to tell a story behind it. Ma closed the first half with Rebonds A & B by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Here, Ma unleashed single-handed quadruplets with stunning efficiency and evenness. The rhythms were like flying shrapnel coming out not from a disorderly explosion but from a well-oiled, well-controlled factory.

After a slightly prolonged intermission, Ma returned on stage to perform Cálculo secreto, a delicious vibraphone number by José Manuel López López. In Ma’s vision, this piece tasted like celestial music punctuated with sixties’ extraterrestrial sentimentality and regimen. The sophistication and timing of Ma’s pedaling work wove a thoroughly intricate musical fabric with multiple layers that thickened and thinned with a rollicking passing of time. Her final three numbers were all 21st century compositions: The Art of Thangka by Emiko Uchiyama, Khan Variations by Alejandro Viñao, and Havana by Rilli Willow. Each presented an ethnic sentimentality (Japanese, Arabic, Jewish) that Ma portrayed with fine aplomb, even if Ma would occasionally lose concentration and find no clean clearance on the keys. Havana was a love poem in vocals played over the monitors, over which Ma showered with well-thought-out, purposeful percussive goodies. Simple work on the bass drums, a few notes on the keyboard and an honest connection with the piece throughout were all that Ma needed to bring zest and a living pulse to the vocal piece.

Sabrina Ma.

Sabrina Ma.

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Chamber music and recital

Anja Harteros: Recital

Date: June 30, 2014
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

Soprano: Anja Harteros
Piano: Wolfram Rieger

This evening, Anja Harteros displayed technical brilliance and artistic grace in the Nationaltheater, in a technically demanding lieder program of Schubert and Brahms. Her lines were well prepared and thoughtfully presented, with clear diction and warm phrasing. One of the endearing qualities of Harteros’ singing is a reserved modesty where the diva, projecting no particular vocal mannerism, always plays healthy subservience to the composer and the music. Her emotions were not pretentious but real, while all notes dropped in perfection and simple harmony with blinding accuracy. In Schubert’s An den Mond (D.193) in particular, Harteros released a tremendous sense of sadness, puncturing an air of warmth built up after a couple of love songs. In Nacht und Träume (D.827), she created a timeless space, almost devoid of oxygen and breath, that virtually no audience dared to provoke. In An die Musik and Seligkeit, two of four encores, she committed her phrasings with a relaxed, yet wholesome expressiveness. Even though her phrasing could be accused of being at times too clean and clinical, she made up with finesse and earnestness. In all honesty and seriousness, her voice seems slightly too operatic for lieder, but one wonders whether that is actually the case or simply the reality of having to sing in a 2000-seat opera house. That this is neither Wigmore Hall nor Schwarzenberg should not be lost on the audience when judging her timbre and output. (That being said, Prinzregententheater could surely have been a slightly better venue?) Wolfram Rieger, the gold standard of accompaniment, voiced the instrument with clarity and singular pleasure. He would match Harteros’ singing point by point, ready to assert as an equal partner but never intent to outshine. Rieger’s control of the tempo and dynamic was instinctive, creating enough contrast to entice but not provoke. Meanwhile, his pedaling work was sublime, and tempered the month-long, fist-pumping opera festival with a delicate evening of Hochkunst.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

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Chamber music and recital, Orchestral music

Scottish Chamber/Pires: Chopin, Beethoven

Date: February 20 & 21, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano

In two concerts during the Arts Festival, the Hong Kong audience had a chance to hear Lisboeta pianist Maria João Pires play two concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Schumann (Op. 54), and Chopin No. 2 (Op. 21). In the first concert, Pires committed herself with measured eloquence, and showed no signs of impatience in unveiling Schumann’s melodic fabric in a slow but sure fashion. In both opening and final movements, her playing infused an aura of nobility and grandeur in the concert hall, though at times her generous pedal work obscured some fine details, especially in those book-ending movements. In the second concert, Chopin’s tricky fingering did not faze the 69-year-old pianist, who delighted with a sympathetic, almost cerebral insight to the piece. Pires’ articulation, unruffled and full of small details and ideas, would easily earn the composer’s approval. That said, Pires seemed just short of providing a requisite level of emotive fervor and broad dynamic range demanded by the piece, especially in the all-hell-breaks-loose Allegro vivace movement. On balance, Pires remains a world-class pianist despite her age, but the choice of the Chopin was less than desirable. Perhaps the Hong Kong audience would be better served with the sort of Schubert and Brahms chamber works – well featured in Pires’ recent recordings with DG – that are more appropriate at this stage in her career. Also programmed in the two concerts were two symphonies: Schumann No. 2 and Beethoven No. 5. The chamber group as a whole was careful with detailing. The first bassoon could have been less dynamically protruding, especially during the Beethoven, but overall the musicians did fine under Robin Ticciati’s animated conducting. The Glyndebourne director-designate’s arm movements, vivid with broad motions, were exciting and fun to watch. The baroque horns (in the Beethoven) had a few dirty moments, but when the archaic instruments were in control, they gave the sort of regal spaciousness and metallic splendor that regular French horns could not easily reproduce.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (Photo credit: HK Arts Festival website)

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