Ballet and dance

Paris Ballet: Legends Mixed Bill

Date: May 11, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Coralli and Perrot – Giselle Act 2 pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Alessandro Riga
Meehan after Ivanov and Petipa – Black Swan pas de deux, with Ge Gao and Ryo Kato
Robbins – In The Night, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt, Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga, Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Cue – La Mort du Cygne (The Dying Swan), with Esteban Berlanga
Fontan and Sarrat – Carmen Toujours! pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Olivier Sarrat
Martinez – Les Enfants du Paradis pas de deux, with Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga
Caniparoli – Lady of the Camellias pas de deux, with Yao Jin and Lucas Jerkander
Van Cauwenbergh – Les Bourgeois, with Alessandro Riga
Favier – Non, je ne regrette rien, with Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Prejlocaj – Le Parc final pas de deux, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt

Balletomanes in Hong Kong will certainly remember two of the pieces this evening: Les Bourgeois, danced by Carlos Acosta in 2016, and Le Parc, danced by Alice Renavand / Florian Magnenet in 2015. Van Cauwenbergh’s choreography is not so much dancing as it is acting, and here Riga romped the stage as a cigarette-smoking bombshell, with the sort of clownish smile and gestures that aroused delirious laughter in the auditorium. Aided by a younger and more flexible body, Riga’s rendition in contrast with Acosta’s felt less muscular and more natural. In Le Parc, Zusperreguy and Hoffalt’s flawless techniques would stand out more if only they did not beam with great chemistry, which they certainly did. Zusperreguy flowed just as graciously as Renavand (and Guérin – their inspiration), and seemed to enhance the role by adding a hint of nervousness and uncertainty, as if she is well aware of life’s reality even as the couple, in ecstasy, momentarily escapes from it. This display of insight was well in contrast with Jin/Jerkander in Lady of the Camellias. The Hong Kong Ballet pair displayed all of Caniparoli’s visual language while managing to find, seemingly, no chemistry between themselves. Jin’s Marguerite, often looking towards the audience, was more eager to please them than Jerkander’s Armand – something that was unfortunate, especially since the pair found good chemistry dancing together in Hong Kong Ballet’s full version back in October 2016. Alas, such was the fact of life with galas where getting into character could be a monumental task. In the Favier, Letestu and Bullion displayed great efficacy of movement and precision while dancing within the confines of a carpet barely larger than the average bathroom stall. Fontan and Sarrat’s Carmen Toujours! was perhaps one of the most exciting new choreographies I have seen lately. Physical moments switched back and forth between cruel violence and sappy tenderness, in deference to the wretched history between Carmen and Don Jose. In the frenetic scene where Jose was about to stab Carmen a la Sweeney Todd, the psychological intensity seemed most and appropriately intertwined with the visual physicality. It would have been perfect, if only the corresponding music was not the flower song, which opera lovers would find out of place. I look forward to comparing it against Yuh Egami/Ricky Hu’s new choreography for the Hong Kong Ballet later this month. Robbin’s In The Night looks and feels Parisian without actually programming as such. All three pairs’ dancing was precise, especially the dancing between Letestu and Bullion. The seasoned pair moved their legs cleanly without unnecessary jitters. Their dancing revealed not a word of flamboyance but a waterfall’s worth of human sensibility. Motions flowed with generous profundity of thought and conviction. Henri Barda, who for decades has been Robbins’ most trusted collaborator, colored the moment with delicious live rendering of Chopin’s nocturnes, among other music. His piano, situated in the pit area (stage right), was spotlighted loosely but prominently from above and was clearly programmed to be an equal partner to the dance proceedings onstage. His performance, full of voice and sentimentality, was worthy of the standing ovations the auditorium lavished him.

Robbins’ In The Night: Paris Opera Ballet legends in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Le French May website.

Chamber music and recital

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

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.

Chamber music and recital, Orchestral music

Scottish Chamber/Pires: Chopin, Beethoven

Date: February 20 & 21, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati, conductor
Maria João Pires, piano

In two concerts during the Arts Festival, the Hong Kong audience had a chance to hear Lisboeta pianist Maria João Pires play two concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Schumann (Op. 54), and Chopin No. 2 (Op. 21). In the first concert, Pires committed herself with measured eloquence, and showed no signs of impatience in unveiling Schumann’s melodic fabric in a slow but sure fashion. In both opening and final movements, her playing infused an aura of nobility and grandeur in the concert hall, though at times her generous pedal work obscured some fine details, especially in those book-ending movements. In the second concert, Chopin’s tricky fingering did not faze the 69-year-old pianist, who delighted with a sympathetic, almost cerebral insight to the piece. Pires’ articulation, unruffled and full of small details and ideas, would easily earn the composer’s approval. That said, Pires seemed just short of providing a requisite level of emotive fervor and broad dynamic range demanded by the piece, especially in the all-hell-breaks-loose Allegro vivace movement. On balance, Pires remains a world-class pianist despite her age, but the choice of the Chopin was less than desirable. Perhaps the Hong Kong audience would be better served with the sort of Schubert and Brahms chamber works – well featured in Pires’ recent recordings with DG – that are more appropriate at this stage in her career. Also programmed in the two concerts were two symphonies: Schumann No. 2 and Beethoven No. 5. The chamber group as a whole was careful with detailing. The first bassoon could have been less dynamically protruding, especially during the Beethoven, but overall the musicians did fine under Robin Ticciati’s animated conducting. The Glyndebourne director-designate’s arm movements, vivid with broad motions, were exciting and fun to watch. The baroque horns (in the Beethoven) had a few dirty moments, but when the archaic instruments were in control, they gave the sort of regal spaciousness and metallic splendor that regular French horns could not easily reproduce.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Maria João Pires with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (Photo credit: HK Arts Festival website)

Chamber music and recital

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.

Chamber music and recital

Garrick Ohlsson: Chopin Recital

Garrick Ohlsson in Beijing.

Date: July 11, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Garrick Ohlsson came to Beijing as part of the NCPA’s Chopin anniversary series, following the acclaimed act of Li Yundi and before the likes of Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy arrive in autumn.

Ohlsson’s program began with Impromptu #2 (Op. 36), the outset of which felt somewhat tentative, if only because a good handful of the audience was still scrambling to get to their seats. After igniting his gears with a series of rolling arpeggios, Ohlsson warmed up and found his comfort zone with Ballade #3 (Op. 47), especially in the mezza voce sections, in which Ohlsson’s robust, spiraling virtuosity was in full display. Fantasie Op. 49 came next, but only after sustained delays due to continued movement by latecomers to their respective seats. The Fantasie, well known for its mystic and unpredictable textures, was rendered with the kind of mystique and charm akin to a lethargic landscape in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The program then proceeded with three Mazurkas (Op. 7-2, 7-3, 30-4). In Op. 7-3, Ohlsson controlled pace with temperament, yielding a flow that felt and tasted like warm, sweet milk. After the Mazurkas, many audience members proceeded to applaud — only then to be signaled by Ohlsson that he would wish to continue into Scherzo No. 3 without interruption. That was a curious choice by Ohlsson as there was very little overlap, in terms of themes and sequences, between the last Mazurka and the Scherzo; the only link between the two pieces, as it seemed to me, was the identical key signature. The choice seemed to have robbed the Scherzo of an independent, prepared entrance, which in my opinion offered the necessary deference to the highly-recognized and celebrated intro to the piece. That said, Ohlsson proceeded with dazzle, going through the difficult passages with apparent ease while meandering through the more lyrical passages with restraint and control.

After intermission, Ohlsson labored through 24 Preludes (Op. 28) just under 40 minutes. His timekeeping was impeccable, never straying far from the composer’s scored intent. His presto had plenty of energy, with a kind of progressiveness that was aggressive but never enraging. Ohlsson cultivated a feisty and playful final molto allegro, and later juxtaposed it with a final largo that was weighty and circumspect.

Ohlsson finished the evening with two encores: Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64-2, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3-2. The waltz came with quite a bit of mannerism, with a ranging tempi and added staccatos. Against the backdrop of the waltz, his Rachmaninoff oozed the monumental weight of a historic drama and that of an ultimate judgment — as if also foretelling the conclusion to World Cup 2010.

Chamber music and recital

Li Yundi: Chopin Recital

Date: May 15, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA.

The Chopin interpreter is an abstract denotation, but Li never shied away from staking his claim on it. His series of Nocturnes, Opp. 9-1, 9-2, 15-2, 27-2 and 48-1 was measured, controlled and expressive. If an immense amount of dexterity was involved, Li did not show it – as if there was no instrument, only an audio output. In Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22, Li offered to expose the two brilliant aspects of Chopin’s body of works by brokering and deftly connecting the first part’s calming serenity with the second part’s fearless intensity.

After a brief intermission and a quick march through a mid-series set of Mazurkas (Op. 33), he moved onto the centerpiece of the evening, Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. In the first movement, his playing style was paraded: skilled but never overtly athletic, in control and never volatile. Li’s rendition of the third movement of Sonata No. 2 op. 35 spoke volumes: the funeral march theme was somber and ponderous, while the Lento interlude was meticulous in its tempi and careful in its phrasing. Li’s touching of the keys was magical: this, being one of my favorite sonatas, was one of the most majestic renditions I have ever heard, easily on par with and quite possibly surpassing the Rubenstein’s, Gilel’s, Zimerman’s, and Kissin’s I grew up to love and adore. Anchoring the programme was Polonaise, Op. 53, where Li’s early attack was a little sloppy, but he quickly recovered to dance to a jubilant finish.

His Mazurka exhibited a level of explicit staccato mannerism that has not previously appeared in any of his recordings, but I can’t be sure whether it was Li’s emerging style or just a fleeting moment of liberty. As encore pieces, he played a melancholic Chinese revolutionary song styled in French impressionism, and then Chopin’s Etude in C minor Op. 10-12. After rounds of rapturous applauses, the audience seemed disappointed that Li chose not to come back for a third encore, though it seemed clear to me that, by that moment, Li’s mental energy seemed drained, most probably through the intensity of the Sonata.

In my opinion, unlike many Chopin interpreters, Li Yundi’s brilliance rests not merely with a white-hot intensity and dazzling virtuosity, but with his sincere deference to the composition. The pounding of keys is merely secondary to an output of tonal richness and sweet phrasing. No amount of words would justify my impression of Li Yundi. Regardless, it would be safe to say that after a night of intense, indefatigable hip hop, Li’s music served as a luxurious, mind-soothing calmative.