Benjamin Grosvenor recital

Date: November 17, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Mendelssohn — Two Preludes & Fugues from Op. 35
Chopin — Barcarolle op. 60
Chopin — Mazurkas Op. 63 No. 2 & Op. 30 No. 4
Chopin — Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante
Ravel — Le Tombeau de Couperin
Liszt — Venezia e Napoli

ENCORES
Gershwin — “Love Walked In” (arr. Percy Grainger)

Dohnanyi — Concert Etude, Op. 28, No. 6 (“Capriccio”) from 6 Concert Etudes

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Benjamin Grosvenor, declared by The New York Times to be the Boy Lord of the Piano, is certainly an electrifying pianist. His lightning fingering dazzles with fiendish delight. His treatment of softer passages brims with a nursing attentiveness, while in louder passages he could easily summon a stentorian intensity. His piano output glows with confidence, and he exhibits the rare gift of keeping a steady tempo. In two encores, especially the devilishly impossible Dohnanyi, his hands danced on the keyboard with practically no wrong notes, at an impossibly(!) and consistently(!!) fast tempo, and discharged an air of caffeinated intensity that could handily transform Slowpoke into Speedy Rodriguez. But Grosvenor’s playing lacked any meaningful conversational power. At the start of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, just as the chimes of the octaves signaled a heightened level of expectation, the result came crashing to naught. Notes overflowed aplenty, but melodic transmission faded away, as if a telegraph wire couldn’t stop dit-dahing but no meaning came out of it. In the first tableaux, Gondoliera, of Venezia e Napoli, the lyrics of Peruchini’s gondolier song could have offered plenty of interpretative materials: “As I gazed intently / at my love’s features, / her little face so smooth, / that mouth, and that lovely breast; / I felt in my heart / a longing, a desire, / a kind of bliss / which I cannot describe!” Grosvenor’s playing was elegant and precise, but no thoughts could be culled from his playing. His hands created plenty of empirical tonal warmth but also a soulless sink hole. In the Tarantella, clinical precision overshadowed, if not entirely dispelled anything that could have come from his heart. Harmony and emotions were obliterated by the sheer force of perfect technique, which seemed, unfortunately, to be the sole star of the evening. The same can be said of the Chopins, especially the Grande Polonaise Brillante, which came with lots of fireworks in individual notes but very little by way of expressive phrasing. With “Love Walked In”, Grosvenor was more expressive, but still lacked the courage to make meaning out of Gershwin’s words: “One look, and I forgot the gloom of the past / One look and I had found my future at last / One look and I had found a world completely new / When love walked in with you.” The only explanation, whether fair or not, is that he has not an abundance of life’s experience to influence his expression. Grosvenor is a seriously talented musician with perhaps the most immaculate touch among all pianists in his generation (bar none!!!), but only time will tell if the Boy Lord could eventually graduate to become a real Lord of our time.

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

HK Sinfonietta/Penderecki

Date: October 24, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Penderecki – Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor)
James Cuddeford (violin)

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, heretofore playing second fiddle to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the city’s better funded and higher profile cousin, should be congratulating its management and musicians for programming the ambitious and hard-to-please program featuring Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. Both pieces are twentieth century gems, basking in glorious critical reviews but lingering in the dark corners of the general public’s memory and imagination. One reason is that both pieces bordered, though did not entirely infringe upon, the atonal. Another reason is that both pieces do not offer so much of a reputable melody as a seemingly deliberate encryption thereof – purists may even find snippets of Shostakovich’s melodic tributes as sophomoric violations of plagiarism, and conclude the music to be an unconvincing original piece of art.

But controversy, coupled with newness in musical composition, is precisely the catalytic ingredients to an adventurous evening. Contrast that with the HK Phil’s conservatism (see here, here and here), there is much to be savored in tonight’s program. It helps that the concerto was led by the composer himself, and anchored by James Cuddeford, Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s concertmaster. Visually, Penderecki seemed to be a patient, unassertive type of maestro, who was ready to let the musicians present themselves in their most authentic way. Hong Kong Sinfonietta has not over the years developed a clear and trademarked style, but in front of Penderecki they seemed extremely alert and sensitive, especially to accents and notations. Winds sounded attentive, while strings charged with cohesive intelligence. James Cuddeford’s effort was nothing less than a musical and visual spectacle. His bowing was fluid and faultless, and his stopping and plucking supreme. Penderecki’s piece yearns for the interpreter’s interpretation, of which Cuddeford offered plenty here. Notations became Cuddeford’s train of thoughts, unleashed into the auditorium with a soulful being that loomed with gravity and presence. Cuddeford’s body swerved with Penderecki’s hauntingly beautiful melody, while melodic mood changes seemed readily reflected on the violinist’s well-chiseled, front cover-worthy face. Bowing and fingering could appear fragile and incomplete, but sounded crisp and solvent. As Cuddeford weaved through some of the quietest solo passages in Penderecki’s mystic work, his violin worked in ways that were serenely ephemeral but cryptic – as if he was spraying intergalactic dust onto the most silent, uninhabited space in universe’s most infinite expanse of nothingness. The capacity crowd at City Hall held their breath in suspense throughout much of the piece, fully realizing that the moment could quite possibly be the orchestra’s finest on record.

Less can be said of the Shostakovich which came after intermission, though the musicians were not to blame. If anything, the incredible performance of the Penderecki seemed to boost the musicians’ confidence. The beginning Allegretto was meticulously presented by the woodwinds and gallantly supported by the strings section, which was buffed up from the concerto’s leaner configuration. Trouble began in Adagio – Largo, when children’s noises started to creep into the auditorium. The noises seemed to arrive from behind the doors of the balcony section (which was closed for this particular concert), and did not subside for the rest of the movement. The treacherous brass phrases in pianissimo were completely breached by this profanity, and flushed into the toilet together with the musicians’ collective focus. Brass started to sound incoherent; strings sounded frigidly cautious, and percussion was barely able to hold onto Shostakovich’s intense rhythmic integrity. The third movement – a tribute to Wagner’s various operas – could not be more disastrous as the most intimate passages, including those somber passages featuring Siegfried’s death, were completely trespassed by the undiminished noises from outside the auditorium. This noise finally subsided in the final movement, but left a foul taste in the listeners’ collective memory. Penderecki would not have been pleased with this situation. If anything could be scavenged from this upheaval, as well as the collective destruction of musicians’ focus and the music, it would be a fitting memorial to a composition that paralleled, if not also reflected, the composer’s failing health and imminent death.

As the concert drew to a close, the orchestra was greeted with rounds of thunderous applause and waves of ovations – perhaps as a compliment to its ability to hold together despite the intrusion, for which the management of City Hall should be held entirely responsible. While the mishap dented the stupendous effort of the first half of the evening, there is no question that, by pulling off a risky programming, the management and programmers of the orchestra could now hold its head high, even with the city’s other orchestra in mind.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

HK Sinfonietta and Penderecki.

Mikhail Rudy

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.

KaJeng Wong, Nancy Loo, Music Lab

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 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.

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.

Die schöne Müllerin

Date: October 2, 2013
Performers: Christoph Genz and Cornelia Herrmann
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Die schöne Müllerin may be an immature work by Schubert, but it is filled with wondrous musical delights. One delight stands out in particular: the motif of the love for the color green. Schubert first defines the motif, a major chord arpeggio, in “Mit dem grünen Lautenbande” (#13, bar 16): “Nun hab das Grüne gern”, before the young apprentice identifies his rival; and basically repeats it in “Die liebe Farbe” (#16, bar 10): “Mein Schatz hat’s Grün so gern”, when his death becomes inevitable. Between the two songs comes the fateful revelation, and to mark the shift in drama Schubert pens a tonal shift from Bb major to B minor. But interestingly, the composer preserves motif’s integrity by emphatically recoloring the motif in “Die liebe Farbe” with a major third (the D# in “mein Schatz”). This development lends credence to the notion that, with the young Schubert ready to maintain some thematic cohesion, his first extended song cycle is more sophisticated than meets the eye. Yet when Christoph Genz attempted “Die liebe Farbe” at City Hall this evening, he flubbed at least one of the emphatic thirds, flatting the note so much so that the notion of a motif became nullified. Genz was similarly uneven for the rest of the evening, and lent few support to long notes, especially at the start of long lines, such as in “Die liebe Farbe”. As a stage performer, Genz did not exhibit undue mannerisms, and seemed quite consistent in the spatial placements of his sightlines: he almost always looked to the audience’s left when singing about the maid, looked to the back of the hall when staring at death, and meandered his sightlines left and right when singing about or voicing the brook. Yet facially he never looked the part of a young and clueless apprentice in love, and his lawless ponytail in the style of bad boy Steven Seagal did not help the cause. Cornelia Herrmann was tentative all night, and, after missing a few notes in the rapid ending of “Ungeduld” (#7), visibly showed her displeasure. Herrmann’s sluggish playing also dragged slower Genz’s voice in the two quick-paced revelations (#14-15), and gave the impression that she was unfamiliar with the music. The performance was a disappointment, but the real disappointment was Hong Kong, whose seven million-strong population could barely fill up one fourth of City Hall’s 1400 seats.

Christoph Genz.

Christoph Genz.