Orchestral music

Ethereal is the Moon

Date: March 12, 2017
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Chan Hing-yan – Ethereal is the Moon
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Wang Ying-chieh (huqin)
Colleen Lee (piano)
Yip Wing-sie (conductor)

Premiered during Sinfonietta’s tour in Taiwan back in November 2016, “Ethereal is the Moon” is the sixth of composer Chan Hing-yan’s commissions for the orchestra. The composition was originally conceived to celebrate the 20th anniversary of collaboration between the composer and the orchestra (their first collaboration, “Enigmas of the Moon”, was premiered in 1998). After Chan completed “Ethereal” in September 2016, two years earlier than planned, the piece was swiftly picked for the orchestra’s tour.

The piece is cast in five movements, each elaborating on one line of Chan’s five-lined, eponymous poem:

Scrawny Horse’s Hooves on Waning Crescent
Moon-embalmed, a Dead Flower Lies in State —
Full Moon Leans to Outline Raven Shadows
Frost-bruised Blossoms Hide the Moonbeam’s Chill —
Lunar Halo Mourns the Mountain Demons

In the music, the first, third and fifth assert with dominant themes. The second and fourth, offering light orchestration and mellow musical structures, not only act as connecting interludes but mirror the motionless sensibility of the poem’s second and fourth lines. This alternating structure further reminds us of the Shostakovich, also structured in five movements, with two mellow movements on either side of the scintillating third. The third movement of “Ethereal” includes a rapid-firing huqin motif that repeats throughout the movement. Played here by Wang Ying-chieh, the motif reminds us of the foundation motif in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. In terms of construct, “Ethereal” is comparable to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. In terms of tonal color, solemn themes and overall melancholic mood, however, the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 11 seems more related.

The opening first movement of “Ethereal” is funereal, almost to the point of apocalypse. Here, Wang’s huqin was juxtaposed frequently in semi-tonal digression by the first violins. The effect was hauntingly surreal. A suffocating air of bleakness seemed to creep in slowly, turning the evening into one of near lifelessness. The second and fourth movements offer no particularly discerning theme, but the harmonic structure is completed with intricate layers of long holding notes by lower strings and lower brasses — a treatment that may well be a tribute to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Whether Shostakovich’s music has actually influenced “Ethereal” is a question yet to be explored, but “Ethereal” very well holds its own in terms of contrasts, details, and its expressiveness. The huqin line offered by Wang is both poetic and vivaciously detailed, and reveals Chan’s committed effort to showcase the instrument’s versatility as a purveyor, respectively, of melody and of texture.

The showcase of versatility was unfortunately not continued in Colleen Lee’s performance in Ravel. Lee’s piano playing was precise and clinical, but was powerless as a voice or as a dramatic device. The piece’s famously jazzy lines were rendered with a Bach-like rigidity. Even a hint of Mozartean playfulness could have offered a more forceful impact. In moments where horns and woodwinds soared with blood-boiling, high-wired dramatics, the piano line failed to answer with a properly balanced counterpoint. That was not to suggest that Lee, who is a past Chopin prize winner, limped to a finish; it was simply that, even as Lee breezed through the Ravel without any difficulty, there was very little emotional or dramatic dialogue between the orchestra and the concerto instrument.

After intermission, we were brought back to “Ethereal”’s structural twin but emotional nemesis. The sole purpose of Shostakovich’s comedic piece could be, jokingly, referred to as a dramatically futile mad dash from the start to the finish. If “Ethereal” is sincere and serious, this Shostakovich is probably anything but. Curiously, Yip offered a cerebral account of the first two movements, as if appearing to stall, or at least slow down, the inevitable dash to the end. The upper violins offered lush phrasings that veered towards Brahmsian sentimentality. Slowly but surely, Yip began to build momentum in the third, but may have overshot her pace so much so that the first bassoon, which holds perhaps the key to the entire work, was barely catching up with the rapid fingering. In the end, the orchestral coloring could be said to be more heroic than comedic, more romantic than satirical. The output would have pleased Stalin, but probably not, at least not necessarily, the composer himself.

Ethereal is the Moon: a program presented under Hong Kong Arts Festival. Photo credit: Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

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