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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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.