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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Ballet and dance

Le Corsaire

Date: November 4 (evening), 5 (mat), 2017
Company: Hong Kong Ballet
Choreography: Anna-Marie Holmes, after Konstantin Sergeyev and Marius Petipa
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Conrad: Wei Wei (4e), Matthew Golding (5m)
Medora: Maria Kochetkova (4e), Jin Yao (5m)
Ali: Li Jiabo (4e), Li Lin (5m)
Lankendem: Xia Jun (4e), Wei Wei (5m)
Gulnare: Ye Feifei (4e), Chen Zhiyao (5m)
Birbanto: Shen Jie (4e), Jonathan Spigner (5m)
Pasha: Ricky Hu (4e), Shunsuke Arimizu (5m)

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
Judith Yan, conductor

The first time I watched the ABT was back in 1998, in that Company’s premiere of Le Corsaire. Back then, I had limited knowledge of ballet and its world, but was nevertheless mesmerized by the airy steps of Medora. I was also dumbfounded by a rapturous buzz, during intermission, of a fine young dancer, in the relatively minor role of Birbanto. Of course, Medora was the great Nina Ananiashvili, and Birbanto was Angel Corella. The production presented in Hong Kong this week inherited from that ABT production, by then Boston Ballet’s Anna-Marie Holmes, the first North American to have danced with the Kirov.

The Hong Kong production, with modified choreography by Holmes in the grotto and garden scenes, offers stunning costumes and a lavish set, by Hugo Millán in conjunction with BNS Ballet National SODRE Uruguay. The side draperies offer a festive palette, especially in the garden scene. Rear video projection enriches each scene with blue skies, rugged seas, or an animation of a slowly extending palace, leading up to the garden scene. Wei Wei, as Conrad in the evening performance, gave solid jumps and fine turns. His turn-in stance could sometimes be a little off putting, but when in movement his focus was intense and rightly placed. Matthew Golding showed enormous power with his fiery jumps and handy lifts. Much of that power originates from his sizable thighs, which look especially voluminous when juxtaposed next to the legs of Jonathan Spigner, who is already one of the more muscular dancers in the local Company. Holmes’ large set inside Cultural Centre’s relatively small stage did not do Golding any favors, as he seemed confined and unable to do any en manages bravura runs of significance.

Maria Kochetkova was flawless as Medora. Her piqué turns were swift and gorgeous to look at, and her jumps yielded great height especially when measured against her diminutive figure. Jin Yao, in the matinee, showed signs of an aging ballerina, with muddled steps during Medora’s Act I variation: most of the regular pirouettes were done off balance and not in sync with music, while the couple of beautiful pirouettes attitude en dehors simply disappeared. Her Act II fouettés did not even nearly make the full count. That being said, she brought the role to life with timely eye contact with her counterparts and with the audience. Her pantomime, especially towards Golding’s Conrad, looked entirely believable, and would have delighted Ananiashvili, herself an animated and committed actor on stage. Li Jiabo and Li Lin were both fine as Ali, with Li Jiabo being more impactful dramatically as a loyal servant of Conrad and with Li Lin more dazzling with his swift (especially those cloches!) and musically precise movements. Ye Feifei, having taken a leave of absence from the Company, from 2014-2016, was in her best form since her return. Her core has strengthened, and she seemed more willing to commit her steps with greater emphasis on artistic fluidity and emotional abandon than merely with technical perfection. She also seemed more flexible than she has ever appeared, especially with multiple gorgeous, and seemingly effortless, side oversplits. Chen Zhiyao appeared slightly more mechanical as the other Gulnare. Her turns were clean and sharp, but being the much younger dancer her steps looked counted. She also found her body brushing against the side curtains not once but twice. Xia Jun made most out of his limited time in the role of Lankendem with sharp moves and fiery acting. Ricky Hu and Shunsuke Arimizu offered plenty of comic relief as Pasha, with Ricky Hu not only offering small details in his steps but also showing a particular apt sense of timing, for example, while playfully toying his ceremonial staff with Medora.

Judith Yan had great ideas in the pit, especially in the Act I overture. Her arms moved furiously, and her cues were crisp and firm. Alas, she seemed unable to fully realize her desires from the City Chamber Orchestra’s playing. The orchestra had a strong strings section (with concertmaster Amelia Chan delighting with fine solos), but was otherwise quite weak, especially in the lower brass. The percussion section, especially at the cymbals, often found itself behind the beat, though no harm was visibly done on the dance stage. Madeleine Onne, the Company’s previous director, may have already planned this production well before her departure earlier this summer, but Septime Webre, her replacement, could be lauded for executing this project beautifully. The entire Company seems to enjoy their output, as did the audience based on their wild reception at the end both performances.

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Ballet and dance

Giselle

Date: February 19 & 22, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot

La Scala Ballet

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
David Garforth (conductor)

French Romantic ballet, stemming from the flurry of artistic output in the early- to mid-nineteenth century in continental Europe, features such Romantic concepts as human love, nature, and yearning for peace and freedom. Much of this was on display here at the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival, in a La Scala production of Giselle. The impressive lush scenes in Act I, gorgeous costumes and buttery dancing offered a perfect angle from which to view Romanticism.

Headlining La Scala’s efforts was Svetlana Zakharova, the Russian/Ukrainian superstar who would dance two of the evenings (sandwiched between her Sochi Olympics opening ceremony and closing ballet gala duties), and David Hallberg, who would partner with Zakharova on those evenings. Reviewed here were two performances that featured neither of them, mainly because of scheduling conflicts (with Cologne and Pires), but also because these two superstars were not obvious interpreters of the Romantic genre. The alternate pairings of Lusymay di Stefano/ Claudio Coviello and Virna Toppi/Antonino Sutera, though lacking global star power, proved nevertheless adequate and effective. In di Stefano, La Scala found a Giselle who moved with fluidic smoothness and round arms — both hallmarks of French Romanticism. Toppi, when posing en arabesque, found her upper body always slightly leaning forward in a naturally balanced pose — another hallmark of Romanticism. While neither rendered the treacherous directional turns during their en pointe travels in the Bergmüller variation (and neither did Zakharova in her two performances, from what I heard through the grapevine), both executed with ample lyricism and velvety smoothness. Toppi was technically clean and dramatically scorching. When she fell into the arms of her mother at the end of Act I, one could really smell that her life was expiring. Di Stefano, exhibiting a glittering youthful presence, found no issue singing the concept of love through her body. When her pleas to Myrtha to spare Albrecht were dismissed, she proved tantalizingly effective in projecting not only despair but a sense of longing for freedom through death and sacrifice.

Coviello was a prolific actor, and his Albrecht made a suitably jelling partner of di Stefano’s Giselle, however short their time together might be. Sutera spared no juices to remain aviating mid-air for as long and as cleanly as possible, and the crowd reciprocated, during his string of thirty-two strongly danced entrechats six, with hearty approval. The rest of the corps had sensational outings in both evenings. In the Act II Dance of the Willis, the corps moved en tutti harmoniously. Their charging arabesques towards the middle of the stage, in teaming lines of succession, paraded ahead with both integrated beauty and a steadfast togetherness.

Over the past century, Adolphe Adam’s score has been more edited and revised than Mary Tyler Moore’s Kim Novak’s face. But thanks to the research and editing efforts of long-time Scala conductor David Garforth and publisher Boosey & Hawkes a decade ago, much of Adam’s original score was restored. The Garforth edition was played here in Hong Kong. Under the baton of Garforth himself, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta was luscious and cooperative in these two evenings, and sounded markedly better than they did last year with the ABT in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Admittedly, Adam’s score, pounded out in a week’s time, was not as intricate and hazardous as Prokofiev’s. Nevertheless, the Sinfonietta sounded luxuriant and vital, which in turn made these two Romantic evenings a most fulfilling one.

Giselle, Act I Rhineland scene. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle, Act I: Rhineland scene. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle Act II: Dance of the Willis. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

Giselle, Act II: Dance of the Willis. (Copyright: La Scala Ballet)

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Ballet and dance

Romeo and Juliet with ABT

Date: February 27 to March 3, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27: Roberto Bolle and Hee Seo
February 28: Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova
March 1: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera
March 2 (matinee): Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova
March 2: Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes
March 3 (matinee): Alexandre Hammoudi and Hee Seo
March 3: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera

American Ballet Theatre

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Charles Barker (all dates except February 28), David LaMarche (February 28) (conductors)

ABT has presented Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for what seems like an eternity. Despite its age, Nicholas Georgiadis’s scenery and costumes remain pictorially perfect, like a fresh Canaletto townscape. While this realism leaves little for the imagination, this Romeo and Juliet aims to shock and awe through scenes after scenes of impressionable visual beauty.

On close up, the props and scenery show signs of age. Visually, the traveling set seems slightly smaller than the one used at the Met, especially in the upstage balcony areas. The stage width also seems slightly narrower than the one at the Met, making the ballroom scene feel a little squeezed, though ABT’s dancers moved, kicked and spun about with no signs of spatial congestion. The costumes, some of which dated back to ABT’s original premiere at the Kennedy Center some three decades ago, do not look its age, thanks in part to ABT’s current program to replace some of these dated wear, but mostly due to the expertise and meticulous upbringing of the Bruce Horowitz-led wardrobe department.

This MacMillan/Georgiadis endeavor focuses as much on dance as it does on acting. Choreography here becomes not just an art of coordinating dance movements but also a craft of managing a monstrous flow of non-ballet dancing actors. In the Act I and II market scenes, characters weave in and out of the stage in a complex array of motion, with traffic always nearby but never in the way of others. In the fight scenes, real épées whisk about in quick fury, with a hovering danger of actually hurting someone. In one evening, Sascha Radetsky, as Tybalt, was bloodied in his Act II fight scene, and, on more than one occasion, the épée simply snapped on stage. In big dance routines, coordination with Prokofiev’s orchestral moments remains paramount. When Prokofiev suggests death and the person is still lingering alive on stage, something becomes disconnected. The intricate tapestry of motion and action is the hallmark of this production. There may be occasional aberrations, but for much of the past thirty years this has been the same, day in and day out, thanks much to the in-house ballet masters and mistresses. ABT’s seven performances in Hong Kong were mostly identical in style and tone, differing only in sentimentality as the two principals offered their own renditions within MacMillan’s interpretative framework.

Five Romeos and four Juliets shared duties over seven performances. In the opening performance, Hee Seo was not even supposed to be there: she replaced Julie Kent, who was injured. Seo’s pinch-hit was remarkable because she just a few nights ago danced the demanding lead role, twice, in The Leaves Are Fading. Seo’s Juliet (Feb. 27; Mar. 3 mat) brimmed with a fountain of youth, whether making music for her friends during the mandolin dance or clowning around with her nurse. Her carefully placed emotions – from an Act I Juliet still reeling from the fresh taste of love to an Act III Juliet resolute in planning her faked death – demonstrated her maturity not just as a dancer but as a serious dramatic actor. A smooth dancer, Seo moved on stage like a marble rolling in melted butter.

What made Polina Semionova a special Juliet (Feb. 28; Mar. 2 mat) was that when she danced, she also presented a master class in the artistry of lines at rest and in motion. The arching of her body was a thing of wonder; her pointe work, always rapid but modest, looked like rain droplets kissing spring meadows. As a dramatic actor, Semionova had a clear sense of where her audience was. Without directly addressing downstage, her young Juliet would frequently start opening up towards her audience, only to recoil in shy humility, as if confessing bits, rather than the entirety, of her coyness.

Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes were two reliable Juliets. Herrera’s Juliet (Mar. 1 and 3) was dramatically eloquent, whether radiating a childish happiness in front of her nurse or emoting horror in front of Paris. Her eyes, full of expressiveness, suggested a Juliet with boundless imagination. Reyes was brisk in movement and measured at rest. Her Juliet (Mar. 2) was characterized with such frailty that made one want to shelter her right away.

Roberto Bolle danced two performances as Romeo (Feb. 27; Mar. 2 mat). Bolle was a strong dancer with sturdy landings; in Bolle’s muscular arms, Seo and Semionova were airy and weightless. Bolle’s Romeo retained an air of gentle innocence even as the weight of Montague nobility consumed him. When Rosaline declined his advances, he responded with a dovish smile, as though nothing so trivial could possibly unnerve him. The Bolle-Semionova pair stood out because they proved to be proficient and naturally at ease with their routines, and when their bodies contacted, they found mutual reliance. Their final pas de deux was properly desperate and committed. The high level of artistry catalyzed the rest of the cast, which responded with a heightened focus and geared-up energy levels.

Gomes started his performance (Feb. 28) with heavy landings and awkward breaths, but recovered soon enough to deliver a serviceable balcony pas de deux. He seemed more at ease from then on, though neither dazzling nor suffocating. Cory Stearns’s boyish good looks undid him: he appeared too readily flummoxed by Rosaline’s rejection, and looked more confused than vengeful in his fight with Tybalt at the end of Act II. At times, Stearns (Mar. 1 and 3) looked like he was more infatuated than in love with Juliet. Dramatics aside, Stearns was a reliable performer, with brisk turns and mind-boggling elevation. His long arms also allowed him to lift Herrera with grace and clarity. Hammoudi (Mar. 3 mat) did not look at ease from the beginning, but calmed down enough to deliver a sultry performance with Seo in their balcony scene. In their respective pas de deux, Gomes’ performance was athletic and buoyant; Stearns’ was clinical and fluid; and Hammoudi’s was beautifully asphyxiating.

Finally, there was Herman Cornejo (Mar. 2). His aerials were superb and effortless, and his steps were steady and clean. Most spectacularly, his pirouettes were always executed with stunning velocity and a crisp finish. The pairing of Cornejo and Reyes, like that of Bolle and Semionova, was a revelation. Delicate and expressive, they didn’t merely dance the steps of Romeo and Juliet, but breathed the two Veronians as if their own. The pair seemed intoxicated by each other in both pas de deux, and when they looked at each other, their eye contact seemed tender and intuitive. Any spontaneous eruption of emotion was readily received and absorbed by the other partner, like two soul-mates in an intimate conversation. These two were also most attuned to Prokofiev’s music, always in fine synchronization.

The rest of the cast was solid. Daniil Simkin nailed his Benvolio steps without breaking a sweat, but always looked like he didn’t care too much for the role. Craig Salstein played a fiendishly fun-loving Mercutio who seemed destined to be betrayed by his wit and provocations. Susan Jones was vastly impressionable as Juliet’s nurse: when Capulet rejected her plea to alleviate Juliet’s circumstances in Act III, her display of dejection and helplessness was poignant and entirely believable. With Prokofiev’s brass raging furiously, it was only appropriate that Stella Abrera, as Lady Capulet bemoaning Tybalt’s death, went dramatically overboard in that short but consequential bit at the end of Act II.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta had little feel for Prokofiev’s score. As the ancient grudge on that fair day in Verona broke into mayhem and Prokofiev’s music was supposed to soar with an apocalyptic urgency, the Sinfonietta barely nudged an impact. Mistakes littered throughout the seven performances, sometimes repeatedly and often deadly, in crucial moments such as the soaring trumpets at Tybalt’s death, the fast trumpet articulations at the beginning of Act II, and the horns at Capulet’s tomb. The mandolin dance, lacking bite, was anemic and unpersuasive. It was understandable that some dancers, already having danced in this production for the umpteenth time, put themselves in cruise-control mode, but it was simply unconscionable that the pit could not raise their game, never mind inspire those on and off stage.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

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Ballet and dance

Two Dance Galas with ABT

Date: February 21 and 23, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 21: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Swan Lake Act III Pas de Deux, Pas de Deux from Stars and Stripes, Symphony #9
February 23: The Leaves Are Fading, The Moor’s Pavane, Symphony in C

American Ballet Theatre

Barbara Bilach (piano) (Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes)
Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
David LaMarche (conductor)

ABT opened the Hong Kong Arts Festival with a pair of dance galas. The first evening began with Drink to Me With Thine Eyes, which features twelve dancers in thirteen snippets. Without music, Mark Morris’ choreography could look like a tacky gym video with funny leg movements and group pilates lunges. However, when coupled with Virgil Thomson’s piano music, played by Barbara Bilach, things started to get interesting: the musical textures seemed vividly re-imagined and radiated through rapid body movements. In Ragtime Bass, one of the snippets, lyrical passages in the tonic were represented by subtler, more ribbon-like motions, while a more rhythmically intense passage in the subdominant was realized via more overt, mechanical leg movements. Next were Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns in Swan Lake’s black swan paired dance, where the two principals performed with a clinical precision but, albeit perhaps intentionally, lacked chemistry. In Stars and Stripes, Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin, a dynamic duo of gushing energy and endlessly beaming smiles, had plenty of fun and received the most thunderous applauses. Lane was rather tight and wobbly at the beginning, but as soon as she warmed up and her feet started carrying her, dancing with the joy of a child but the seriousness of a consummate professional. Ratmansky’s delectable choreography in his new Symphony #9 has no obvious narrative, but dazzles with pure athleticism, especially in the fourth movement, as Herman Cornejo turned and jumped with boundless energy, and in the second movement, where Polina Semionova and Marcelo Gomes nursed poetic sexual tensions via contemplative body lines and contact.

In the second evening, Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle led an admirable cast in The Leaves Are Fading, Antony Tudor’s poetic tribute to unrelenting youth. Bolle’s lines were statuesque and pensive, while Seo, notably graceful in feel and form, imprinted particularly with her exquisite lowerings from full pointe. Symphony in C, the evening’s anchor, was pure luxury, even in Barbara Karinska’s uninspiring black and white costumes. Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm were properly athletic and bouncy in the first movement, especially in the juicy petit allegro. Simone Messmer and Jared Matthews in the fourth movement were like two dancing architects, building up the stage into a gala of 48 dancers in robust and well-synchronized motions.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta provided live accompaniment from the pit, with ABT’s Charles Barker and David LaMarche conducting the respective evenings. The Hong Kong group was mostly dutiful, but did show some weakness in the upper brass, particularly during Stars and Stripes. Redemption did follow, with a Symphony in C that raced to a spirited, feisty finish.

ABT's Symphony in C.

ABT’s Symphony in C. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.

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