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.

St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

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

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.

Maria João Pires

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)

Mozart Requiem

Date: September 2, 2012
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Die Konzertisten
City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
Stephen Layton, conductor

English conductor Stephen Layton has amassed an eclectic collection of commercial recordings over the years. His 2001 recording of Britten’s choral music, for which Layton received a Gramophone Award, included a diverse mix of songs, hymns and offerings. This evening’s programming of countrapuntal music served a similar plate of mixed choral goodies, including a motet (Bach’s Singet dem Herrn), a cantata (Jauchzet Gott, also by Bach), as well as Mozart Requiem. Layton conducted Die Konzertisten, a Hong Kong-based amateur chamber choir, and the City Chamber Orchestra, which comprised of local professional musicians. Die Konzertisten as a corpus was rhythmically alive and phrasally in unison, thanks much to Layton’s crisp and resolute conducting. The integrity of countrapuntal tonality would occasionally expose unattractive crevices in passages of quick crescendos, especially in the motet, but otherwise the group had an applaudable outing. Louise Kwong, a talented up-and-coming soprano, sang both soprano parts in Bach’s cantata and Requiem. In the fast aria section of the cantata, Kwong seemed uncomfortable with some of the long phrasings, and exhibited aspiration problems on numerous occasions. In the slower recitativo and second aria sections, her lyrical voice flourished, projecting an ample amount of tonal beauty. Her singing was generally desirable, but by rarely looking away from her handheld score, she offered insufficient emotive connection to the audience. That was especially evident at the end of Gott when she sang “Drauf singen wir zur Stund: Amen, wir werden es erlangen / To this we sing here now: Amen, we shall achieve it” mostly while staring at the score. Melody Sze, the mezzo in Requiem, traversed with meticulous detailing and care, so much so that she sounded as if she had to cautiously suppress an outpouring of her vocal reservoir to hold vocal balance. Christopher Leung’s tenor was groomed and well voiced. Alan Tsang offered a lyrical high baritone that was highly polished yet properly fervent, but his lower registers found very little support and were often drowned out by the orchestra, especially in his solo in Tuba mirum.