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

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.

James Galway recital

James Galway, the flautist well known for making a lucrative career as a touring soloist, delighted the Beijing audience with an evening of impressionist and a pair of late-19th century Doppler arrangements. Beginning the evening was Faure’s Fantasie for Flute & Piano, Op. 79, which Galway had to restart twice due to nuances with his flute. Perhaps because of the restarts, a brief trip to the backstage in between to work on his flute, and a pause due to a poorly-timed cellphone ring, Galway seemed a little hesitant and not fully immersed in Faure’s buttery melodic arches. His delivery of Clair de Lune by Debussy was also problematic, sounding choppy and somewhat limping. His first Doppler, Andante & Rondo for Two Flutes & Piano, Op. 25, in which he shared the stage with his wife, Lady Galway, sounded a lot better. Sir Galway seemed very much at ease with his wife’s presence, and harmonically in control of the trio (with Michael McHale as the accompanying pianist) even as Lady Galway and McHale had respectively the bulk of the melodic and rhythmic lines. The second Doppler was the deliciously crafted Rigoletto Fantasy for Two Flutes, Op. 38. The exquisite arrangements on the Caro nome theme were marred by a dynamic imbalance that Lady Galway seemed desperate to correct. While her open embouchure produced a bigger, breathier sound, her air-stream was audible, with an especially annoying diffusion at the top notes.  The regular program ended with Francois Borne’s Carmen Fantasie, in which Galway seemed to have missed a few notes and looked more laborious than in complete control. A sublime rendition of Danny Boy as encore, paired with an expert control over the Irish tune’s pianissimo, partially redeemed the virtuoso, but left me wondering whether he has fully recovered from the physical and mental trauma of going through his arm injury a few years ago.

James Galway in Beijing.

James Galway in Beijing.

Carlo Rizzi in HK

Date: January 28, 2011
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, guest conductor Carlo Rizzi delivered a formidable all-French program: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, Op. 7, and Debussy’s Images for the orchestra. Antonacci has recently made Les nuits her own, having sung the piece with Sir Colin Davis at Champs-Élysées, with Bruno Bartoletti in Parma, and with young superstar Tugan Sokhiev in Munich and Ferrara. The sultry timbre of Antonacci’s voice, her crisp vocal agility and her ability to secure low registers allow her to handle mezzo-like, technically daunting endeavors such as Les nuits with relative ease. But her performance tonight did not fit the bill: her timbre was somewhat banal and uninspiring, and her emotional colorings were the same whether she was singing about springtime love in Villanelle or a lover’s death in Sur les lagunes. Rizzi’s Images was not marginally better: all the notes were dutifully presented, but Rizzi’s rendition lacked the shade of “Frenchness” imprinted in Debussy’s works. Granted, Images carries geo-locational subtleties, but that Gallic absence seemed to betray Debussy’s mystical presence in his glittering, free-flowing passages. In a theme-less work such as Images, the lack of Debussy’s skeleton made the piece somewhat hollow and, to put it more bluntly, dragging to endure. The audience’s response was lukewarm, as much due to the fact that it was the Friday night before a long national holiday as it was a retort to the concert planners trying too hard to make possible an academically stimulating but hard-to-please program.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, in Hong Kong.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, with maestro Rizzi, in Hong Kong.

Maurizio Pollini Recital

Date: October 3, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Maurizio Pollini is the artist who introduced me to the music of Bartok and Boulez. In Pollini’s interpretation I always find an immaculate precision, yet a suave sophistication most closely analogical to the modernity of Norman Foster’s sharp-edged, machine-influenced designs. It was therefore regretful that I only found tidbits of Pollini’s former glory in an evening dominated by inconsistency and unevenness, in what was probably my first and perhaps last opportunity as an audience member to hear the master at work.

In Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28), Pollini proved that the soon-to-be septuagenarian was ready to reevaluate his interpretation: the stainless steel precision most attributable to his playing style gave way to a more nuanced tenderness. He seemed more ready and willing than in the past to radiate a shade of human warmth, especially in the slower passages. Yet, while he remained faithful as a master weaver of Chopin’s aesthetics, on occasion he lost control of the composer’s subtle textures. For example, in “von Bulow’s Vision”, Pollini began with a solemn resolve, but at one of those famed chords, the momentum took a quick turn and dived into this feathery fickle which I was quite certain Chopin knew nothing of. Its conclusive mirror, the No. 20 Largo, was better as Pollini seemed fully warmed up and was able to direct with a cool aplomb. But in general, I found his Chopin slightly over-pedaled and muddy – perhaps as an improvised reaction to a noisy audience.

After intermission, the program continued with Debussy’s Etudes Nos. 7-12. These pieces were where Pollini found his groove: he eagerly developed the various harmonic lines, unleashing his great arsenal of touch and resulting in a rich fabric of tonal textures, intensity and Debussy’s harmonic densities. Yet, I found his interpretation somewhat uneven and, even if he was attempting a new interpretation, lacking an overarching thesis that linked together Debussy’s disparate elements. Finishing up the evening’s regular program was Boulez’s Sonata No. 2. Pollini showed a superb mastery of Boulez’s intended theatrics by skillfully crossing hands with fluidity. Some of Boulez’s aesthetics seemed on display too, as Pollini registered a myriad of piano timbre and complex chords into a coherent whole. Yet I couldn’t help but compare his performance here to that in the 1976 recording: the 1976 version had this percussive flair that I found lacking here in Beijing, and often times it was this rhythmic excitement that lured me time and again to the recording. There was no such allure tonight.

Despite (or because of?) his age, Pollini’s grace was clearly on display: after four encores, he wrapped up with the difficult crowd favorite, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10-12. His rendition did not impress me too much as I found it slightly dragging and lacking emotive firepower, but it simply showed that the master wasn’t shy of pushing a little more even after two hours of intense music making.