Cecilia’s Rhapsody

Date: March 18, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Blue Ka-wing – The Invisible S
Ata Wong Chun-tat – Très léger
Rebecca Wong Pik-kei – Nook

This contemporary dance program brings together three works in response to “Cecilia”, a short story about Hong Kong’s urban landscape that launched Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung’s career twenty-some years ago. Blue Ka-wing’s piece, divided into multiple segments, questions whether the body matters in this world. In one segment, two dancers, with their bellies on the floor (actually, on a glass podium positioned mid-stage) and their hands and legs flapping around, are caricatured as instant message-typing goldfishes swimming aimlessly in a fish tank, to the waltzy music from Disney’s “Up”. Meanwhile, music switches intermittently into abrupt sequences of Stockhausen-like pulses, whereby the dancers jump up and take turns to embrace, slap at, or just look at each other. In another segment, the two dancers take turns to physically abuse each other, whether by slapping, kicking or pinching severely, as if alluding to some uncomfortable realities of modern society. Overall, the theatrical presentation here is quite memorable, but the dance language is too varied, and ultimately muddled.

Ata Wong Chun-tat’s piece begins with a dancer, dressed in a geometrically awkward costume that seems precisely to un-flatter the human body. Dancer Mok Chun-tung’s weighty body seems to reinforce this idea, though it must be noted that Mok, being a theater-actor by training, shows dancer-like flexibility and endurance, not to mention well-defined facial expressions, in his captivating solo. In the background, the soundtrack begins with a primitive sequence of long electronic pulses and ends with a soppy Cantopop song, played through a portable deck player held up on stage by a performer. In between, Chan Tze-wing renders live music with a cello while donning a long black dress and sitting on the shoulder of a lifter (hidden within the dress). This musical development, from the primitive to the commercial, seems to mirror the gradual increase in sophistication of the dancers’ movements during the piece, as though the choreographer wants to describe a developing humanity, probably in relation to Dung’s urban visualization of the city. If the piece is meant to be thoughtful and broadly contemplative, it succeeds theatrically and visually. But as a piece of dance theater, the language here seems too broad, with neither a lasting impact nor an all-encompassing glue that brings the various body movements under a cohesive thesis.

Of the three pieces, Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook” offers the most coherent dance language and the most satisfying mix of dance and theater. A dark stage is lid with four rows of LEDs across the depth of the floor, with two on the floor and two hanging above them. Dancers Alice Ma and Takao Komaru display a well-rehearsed partnership where two body weights counter each other with seamless perfection just as they move freely across the stage. The two dancers mostly dance apart, but when they are together they are mostly connected through a piece of red dress (worn on Ma). At times Komaru would grab one end of the dress and swing violently, flying Ma’s body across the stage. Dancers would occasionally wrap their heads in the red dress and be led by the other, as though human relationships, no matter how beautiful, could at times find one side to be suffocating and subservient. When the dancers move together, they offer a most intense eye contact, infused with meanings undefined and unknown, as if alluding to the unpredictable and often dreamy human relationships in Dung’s work. With “Nook”, the overall effect weaving dance and theater together is most cohesive, while the dancers’ performance is most natural, sizzling, and revelatory. Komaru’s solo effort at the beginning, frenetic and muscular, reveals the top-class classical training behind the utmost fluency of his steps.

Alice Ma and Takao Komaru, in Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook”. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The Makropulos Case

Date: February 25, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Emilia Marty: Annalena Persson
Albert Gregor: Aleš Briscein
Vítek: Petr Levíček
Kristina: Eva Štěrbová
Baron Prus: Svatopluk Sem
Dr. Kolenatý: František Ďuriač
Janek: Peter Račko
Stage Hand: Jiří Klecker
Cleaner: Jitka Zerhauová
Hauk-Šendorf: Jan Markvart
Lady’s Maid: Jana Hrochová

Orchestra and Chorus of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre Brno

Marko Ivanović, conductor
David Radok, director

Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, based on a play by Karel Čapek of the same name, tackles a topic that is as old as humanity itself: human being’s infatuation with immortality. The heroine, Elina Makropulos has been living for more than three hundred years and, now going by the name of Emilia Marty, is seeking the potion that would allow her to live three hundred years more. As she pursues the secret formula, self-doubt eventually compels her to reject immortality altogether.

Here, Emilia Marty was portrayed by Annalena Persson, whose voice was supple with a molasses-like richness. Big, penetrating and powerful, Persson’s voice reminds us of the early years of another Swedish soprano by the name of Birgit Nilsson. As a dramatic actor, Persson owned the stage with a dominating presence, and that was not just because of a role that demands it. Persson made it a habit to engage those around her with a fiery and penetrating eye contact. Even as she was singing about her past excesses or a lingering meaninglessness of life, she would, via the certainty of a forceful glance, make it known to those on stage, and the audience off stage, that she meant what she sang. As the need to find the secret formula entraps Emilia and robs her of her freedom, the realization that life could go on without it unshackles her and brings her freedom. Here, Persson aptly portrayed this slow but sure transformation through a gradually loosening of limb movements. Through her eyes, one could sense that the aggression that used to overwhelm her in her initial quest for immortality has mellowed into the sort of content fulfillment that reflects more of a winning satisfaction than an appeasing complacency.

Janáček’s rhythms for the opera are precise and energetic. Emilia’s final aria is as close to a bel canto “mad scene” as one would have it. Brass stirs with multifaceted polyphony, on top of which rest intricate layers of rapidly-firing winds and strings. This has the effect of dramatizing Emilia’s transformation and the earth-shattering meaning behind it. Here, Brno’s orchestra, led by maestro Marko Ivanović, showcased the score with a lively briskness and measured urgency. Percussion section engaged with gripping intensity and ripping accuracy. The rest of the singing cast was dependable with their good singing and fine acting. Jan Markvart’s caricature of the jocular figure of Count Hauk-Šendorf delighted the crowd with Viennese operetta-like facial expressions perfect for the role. The production is classically done: at Dr. Kolenatý’s office, every piece of furniture, the walls and the lamps were meticulously handcrafted to take us back to the 1913 office realism that Čapek has well prescribed. The staging and lighting were ample and luxurious without seeking to overwhelm or take the limelight off of the music and the stage drama. In most productions, the secret formula would be destroyed. But here, Emilia simply wrinkled the paper containing the formula, threw it on the ground without destroying it. By leaving a can of worms ready to be re-opened, director David Radok created his only significant departure from the standard treatment of the opera’s ending, but in a way that gives us food for thought without demeaning it.

Makropulos Case by National Theatre Brno. Photo credit: National Theatre Brno’s website.

Mixed Bill / Das Triadische Ballett

Date: February 21, 2017
Company: Bayerisches Staatsballett II
Location: Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Balanchine – Allegro Brillante
Duato – Jardí Tancat
Siegal – 3 Preludes, Rialto Ripples
Gerhard Bohner, after Schlemmer – Das Triadische Ballett

The appointment of Igor Zelensky as Ballet Director at Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2016 means that his predecessor, Ivan Liška, would either leave or be reassigned elsewhere. Liška, who has for nearly two decades overseen the ballet company’s rise into a formidable company with equal emphasis on classics and modern, has since taken up directorship of the junior company. Liška’s new appointment may be seen as a downgrade to some. But in many ways, Liška’s new appointment could very well point to his personal ambition to raise the prominence of the junior company and, given Liška’s stature and prominence, Munich’s desire to become a magnet for young rising stars. Many of these young stars were vividly featured this evening.

As the feminine protagonist in Richard Siegal’s choreography, to popular tunes by George Gershwin, Margarida Neto dazzled with a fantastic display of athletic finesse, precision timing and theatric artistry. Witnessing Neto’s acrobatic athleticism was liberating and revelatory. Her demeanor revealed an inner-self that is rebellious at heart. A contemporary whom she would readily look up to would be Natalia Osipova. Her three male counterparts were dutiful and humorous, but as they jumped en tutti with Neto it was clear that Neto exhibited superior control of timing (in relation to music) and muscles (in achieving elevation). I would not be surprised if Neto soon finds an offer as soloist in the senior company or elsewhere.

If Balanchine’s choreography chiefly demands technical mastery of the individual steps, Bianca Teixeira and Francesco Leone, the soloists in Allegro Brillante, were more than competent in that regard. Teixeira displayed strong arched back and good pointe work, while Leone was a solid partner with effortless elevation. Crucially, both were musically inclined and ready to dance to the music rather than to a list of steps. The rest of the ensemble revealed a well-rehearsed junior company in which jumps were in sync and positions were well-aligned. Liška should be proud of their effort overall.

Das Triadische Ballett, of course, was created by Oskar Schlemmer during the nascent days of Bauhaus. Dance, which before Bauhaus was designed to express emotions, were reduced into mechanic display of basic geometric forms and movements under Schlemmer. Ballerinas in tutus would move like a horizontally spinning disc. Danseurs would move like robots, with their limbs moving in simple degrees of freedom. If Bauhaus as a design philosophy means to reduce objects into abstract principles of functions and forms, then Das Triadische Ballett is a hugely significant attempt to apply that philosophy into dance. Whether that treatment has any philosophical or historical significance in altering dance thereafter is up to debate (though most modern choreography, including Balanchine’s, probably borrows fundamental abstractions from or reflects such abstractions central to this philosophy), the singular outcome definitely results in something fundamentally different from what the dancing world has heretofore experienced. This Munich showcase is based on a reconstruction by Gerhard Bohner in 1977. In this instance, Hans-Joachim Hespos replaces a soundtrack having works by Tarenghi, Bossi, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Paradies, Galuppi and Handel, with his own. The mutation is not entirely uncalled for, as Schlemmer himself has proclaimed the work to be accompanied with contemporaneous music.

In contrast with the music in the 1970 reconstruction by Margarete Hastings, which is available on Youtube, Hans-Joachim Hespos’ work is more violent in its usage of atonality and random noise. Tuneless output has the effect of drawing the audience’s attention away from what is presented to what the tuneless noise means. Whether it be (presumably) metallic scratching or beating of random pieces of plastic, that randomness does trigger in the modern mind a corresponding action, focus, or event that may or may not be what the choreographer intends to be. This is perhaps why a continuous rendering of tonal Haydn, Mozart or Handel could better direct the audience’s attention towards the dancers.

Of course, Schlemmer does not intend the piece to be merely about dancers. Costumes form a huge part of the display philosophy. Here, the costumes defer squarely to Schlemmer’s original, where costumes with names like “Sphere skirt”, “Disc”, “Wire Costume” and “Gold Ball” are meant to represent abstractions of the human body which, with their specific material properties, determine the dancers’ every movement. The physical presentation here is formal, without any unnecessary embellishments. Dancers essentially are there to showcase the costumes as models. For the most part they did well, other than an accidental clash between the “Disc”s and the occasional exposé of the dancer’s arm in the “jellyfish” costume, which certainly would not have pleased Schlemmer.

The bigger issue in this Bohner reconstruction is the dark background. While the dark background features movements and costumes more prominently, the overall presentation is too tiring to the eye, especially when the costumes are constantly spotlighted over darkness. Schlemmer calls this “triadic” because he aims to juxtapose presentations in multiples of three, whether it be a reference to the number of dancers, costumes in each segment, or in the dimensionality of the presentation. But it also refers to the tripartite-ness of the presentation — one that is partitioned into yellow, pink, and black. Here, because everything is maneuvered in pitch black, the three partitions exist only in the different costumes, and, ever marginally, in the music composition. Any future revival or reconstruction would probably benefit from the tripartite-ness of the background color, if only to go easier on the eyes. That being said, Liška should be lauded for his bravery and determination to allow such a significant project —  historical in its place in German modern art and modernism — to bear fruit. The Arts Festival, likewise, should be commended for bringing Schlemmer’s adventurism, for the first time, in front of the Hong Kong audience.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.

La Bayadère

Date: February 16, 17, 18m, 18e, 19, 2017 (all five performances attended and reviewed as one)
Company: Bayerisches Staatsballett
Choreography: Patrice Bart, after Marius Petipa
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Nikiya: Ksenia Ryzhkova (February 16, 18m, 19), Ivy Amista (17, 18e)
Gamzatti: Ivy Amista (16), Tatiana Tiliguzova (18m), Prisca Zeisel (17, 18e, 19)
Solor: Osiel Gouneo (16, 18m, 19), Vladimir Shklyarov (17), Erik Murzagaliyev (18e)
Golden Idol: Jonah Cook (16, 17, 18m, 18e), Alexey Popov (19)

La Bayadère was first staged by Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg in February 1877. Many versions were presented over the years, including a significant revision by Petipa himself in 1900, but the most definitive version from which all subsequent productions are based was made in 1941 by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani at Kirov. This Bayerisches Staatsballett production, reconstructed by Patrice Bart for Munich in the late 90s, was the first German production of the ballet and one that inherited from Ponomarev/Chabukiani. Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden subsequently staged their own, but this Munich gem is the first, and arguably definitive, version in the eyes of Germans seeking a vessel to take them to the exotic Far East.

Bart’s version attempts to tell the entire story at a brisk pace. Solor’s opium sequence, which I usually find dragging and unproductive, is breezed through. Some of the elements, however, are crucially missing. The entire role of the head faqir, typical in nearly every existing version of the ballet, is eliminated. This poses various issues, as he is the crucial link between Solor and Nikiya (that link is now depicted by one of Solor’s friends). Also, without the faqirs, Bart’s Nikiya carries a water jug but with no one to serve to, meaning that the essential piece of theater depicting Nikiya’s compassion and grace is now completely absent. The entire sequence with the faqirs dancing is also removed, as is the Sacred Fire, next to which the two lovers would have sworn eternal love to each other. If not for a newly added variation with Solor, this scene would have no teeth. Even then, the addition, with its airy cabrioles and fast turns, contributes few as it is nothing more than a truncated version of Solor’s big number in the grand pas. Those aside, the story line is quite focused, and the drama flows quite naturally.

Tomio Mohri’s set and costumes take us through a whirlwind tour of the Far East – with Indian, Vietnamese, Burmese and Japanese all rolled into one. The colors of costumes and sets often sharply contradict each other, but this sort of confused and tacky orientalism is not entirely inconsistent with what Petipa, who has never traveled to the Far East himself, would have imagined anyway. The procession in Act I Scene 3, with three wagons, a huge tiger and dozens of dancers on stage, is simply a luxurious spectacle. The Theatre’s small stage (relative to the opulent set) makes some of the pas d’action look tighter than would be desirable. It is entirely possible that, with this being a German company after all, some of the corp de ballet dances are deliberately staggered out of line to increase safety margins. The costumes look gorgeous and meticulously handcrafted, and as they bask under the spotlight, the metallic paint on the gauzy costumes shimmers with majesty.

In the apotheosis scene, Solor, Nikiya and Gamzatti, wearing what seemed to be kimono pieces, reunit spiritually in heaven. That would contrast with the common ending (including the 1900 version in Petipa’s revival) where only Solor and Nikiya join in spirits. Mohri is perhaps addressing this contradiction where just a few minutes ago (in theater time) Solor is still conflicted between the two ladies, as evident in the sensual pas de trois. Nothing has been resolved, whether Solor’s flip-flopping, Nikiya’s murderous instincts or Gamzatti’s subsequent guilt. Could the angry gods let the temple collapse simply because resolution must still be forthcoming? The open-ended-ness deserves praise for its honesty and provides some food for thought. Dramaturgy aside, the effect is stunning, with the three characters moving upstage in white kimonos, imprinted with phoenix(?) pairs. Cloud effect consumes the stage. Minkus’ music draws to an apocalyptic, almost Wagnerian close. At that moment, time seems to have no relevance, and audience holds their collective breath till curtain falls.

Various casts took action on stage. Ksenia Ryzhkova was a capable Nikiya who dazzled with exceptional point work and stunningly efficient piqué turns. Other than an unfortunate fall at the very beginning of the February 16 performance, at the moment of Nikya and Solor’s rendezvous, Ryzhkova was outstanding and appeared more and more so as she found comfort in her surroundings. Ivy Amista danced two performances originally slated for Maria Shirinkina, who was a no show (though her husband, Vladmir Shklyarov, was). Amista was Munich’s prima Nikiya more than a decade ago and is well-liked in Bavaria. Her point work has lost some of its brilliance, and she looked tired towards the end of the shades scene. However, she made up with endearing expressiveness, not just with her body language but through that all-telling sparkle in her eyes.

Amista, Tatiana Tiliguzova and Prisca Zeisel shared duties as Gamzatti. All three were in fine form in the role. Tiliguzova had a natural edge with her deeply-chiseled face and, with a lone performance, plenty of reserves to accomplish energy-draining perfect lines and endless attitudes. On February 18, Zeisel fell off point as she attempted multiple double pirouettes after her fouettés in the Act I grand pas coda, but on the next day, probably as a result of sound advice, she took it easy with fluid, upright singles and received thunderous applause. Generous with her smiles, Zeisel carried grace and inner beauty. As a ballerina, her pirouettes were secure and solid, and her acting apt.

Osiel Goueno, Vladmir Shklyarov and Erik Murzagaliyev shared duties as Solor. Goueno jumped without fear, with exceptionally high cabrioles and silent landings. On different nights, he also managed different finishes in his Act I variation. While his barrel turns were technically marvelous, it was his jetés-saut-en attitude sequence that worked up the crowd. Shklyarov, who already has appeared as Solor in a televised Chabukiani/Zubrovsky staging for Mariinsky, shone with fine bravura technique and stage presence. Overall, Shklyarov was a more complete dancer with fine turns, airy jumps and, crucially, dependable partnership with his ballerina counterparts. His arched-back finish to his variations was simply iconic. The young Murzagaliyev had some good individual moments, but for the most part looked out of place in the presence of other dancers. His lifting and partnering techniques could surely improve. Golden Idol was danced by Jonah Cook and Alexey Popov. Cook finished each run with clinical perfection but lacked fearless ferocity, while Popov started his lone outing strong but lost steam in his final sequence of jumps and chaînés turns.

The epic moment of the ballet, of course, was the Kingdom of the Shades. 24 ballerinas descended the double-raked slope with grace and dignity. Towards the coda, and no matter how tired the ballerinas were, they managed to execute instances of temps levés in sync, as if two dozen of them were robe jumping together in perfect synchronization. Their tendus filed with compulsive precision, while their arm posed with beautiful alignment.

Maria Babanina, as music arranger, reworked some of the interludes at the margins to glue the piece, after cuts and additions, back together. The “oompah” style of Minkus, with no pun intended towards the Bavarians, was left in place here. Curiously, the entire music of Gamzatti’s Act I variation was rewritten, though it did not significantly impact the proceedings or the grace of the moment. The Hong Kong Philharmonic performed well below their desired level. Richard Bamping’s rendition of Nikiya’s cello music was absolutely divine, and single-handedly lifted the musical experience. Unfortunately, the solo violin obbligato lines, there to create morbid melancholy, were murdered alive, in utmost physical brutality in all of the five performances. As the violin struggled to hold on pitch, Solor and Nikiya’s finished their shades pas de deux, no matter how well-danced, without a deserved audience response, as if the audience was reacting also to the music. Michael Schmidtsdorff seemed to have a hard time modulating the orchestra’s pace even as circumstances on stage demanded such. As reasonably good as they are as a concert orchestra, there exists a long way before the Hong Kong Philharmonic could be considered a proficient ballet orchestra.

20170216-la-bayadere

Kingdom of Shades, La Bayadere in Hong Kong. Credit: Charles Tandy via Hong Kong Arts Festival website.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov in concert

Date: March 8, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Verdi – Sinfonia from La Forza del Destino
Cilea – “respiro appena…lo son l’umile ancella”
Cilea – “È la solita storia del pastore”
Verdi – “Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor”
Verdi – “Ah! sì ben mio…Di quella pira”
Verdi – Prelude from Attila
Verdi – “Già nella notte densa”
De Curtis – “Non ti scordar di me”
Puccini – “Un bel dì vedremo”
Massenet – “Toute mon âme est là!…Pourquoi me réveiller”
Puccini – “O mio babbino caro”
Puccini – “E lucevan le stelle”
Puccini – Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Puccini – O soave fanciulla

ENCORES

Kálmán – “Heia, in den Bergen”
Puccini – “Nessun Dorma”
Verdi – “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jader Bignamini, conductor
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Yusif Eyvazov, tenor

Prima donna Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, her newly-wedded husband, began their month-long, five-city Asia tour in a sold-out concert this evening as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In what was her Hong Kong/Asia debut, this must be the most sought-after ticket in town.

Netrebko found an enthusiastic audience eager to be pleased. When she first stepped onto the stage floor, in a plump and elegant white gown, the typically stoic, stone-faced Hong Kong audience went out of character, with an extendedly warm and boisterous greeting that said everything there is to say about her popularity and the enthusiasm towards her long-awaited Hong Kong/Asia debut. That monumental greeting was outmatched by an even more boisterous one when Netrebko came out after the intermission in a strapless, red silk gown with Asian-themed digital print. Netrebko and Eyvazov alternated in a program of popular Italian/French arias. Her voice basked with a warm golden hue, with a stately and comfortable top. She could flow from loud to soft passages with ease: the well supported pianissimos in “Un bel di vedremo” from Butterfly were a good example. On the other side of the token, Netrebko was able to pull some sturdy punches in those exposed, incredibly fast passages in Leonora’s cabaletta, with a searing forte that easily sailed over a loud orchestra while reminding everyone that it was her Donna Anna that brokered her cosmic trajectory to stardom. Netrebko’s breathing was meticulously controlled (save, alas(!), for the erratic final note, sang offstage, in her Mimi), yet with such an unbound vocal reservoir that in “lo son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, the solo violin accompanying her exhausted his numerous up-bows and nearly failed to keep up with her seemingly endless, and clearly audience-indulging(!), fermatas.

One could easily dismiss Eyvazov as yet another case of Sutherland’s Bonynge – that buy-one-get-one-free deal in the operatic world, but that would be unjust to Eyvazov here. Eyvazov nurtured a fine voice, with a sumptuous Italianate timbre and the sort of scorching, exposed top that would not displease the loggione a la Scala. Going through Eyvazov’s selections here (e.g. Manrico, Werther and Cavaradossi) and his repertoire (e.g. Des Grieux), one cannot stop but think of Jonas Kaufmann, but the similarities would end here. Even if Eyvazov’s diction could sometimes be slightly muddled (something that nobody would ever complain about the linguistically-inclined Kaufmann), his vocal production is definitively more Italianate. His timbre reminds us of the singers of the yesteryear: Corelli, yet with more sensitive subtlety, or di Stefano, yet with more ease and less abuse of the vocal chord. By that I am not arguing Eyvazov as necessarily equaling Corelli or di Stefano, at least not yet, but there are certain qualities about the Azerbaijani tenor that make him a great candidate to further stardom. His high notes sounded natural and with dimension, and his phrasing was discreet and attentive. The real chemistry between him and Netrebko also helped with the duets on display tonight, especially in the La bohème. If this concert is any indication, his Salzburg debut as Des Grieux this summer could prove to be his star-making party. It remains to be seen if Eyvazov’s exposed top could withstand the wear and tear that come naturally with a busy schedule ahead.

Jader Bignamini flapped his arms in a way that was neither abhorrent nor particularly interesting to watch, but did give the impression that he was not conducting but merely manhandling a rehearsed time sheet. With the prima donna’s presence in mind, no indictment shall be warranted here, but the Hong Kong Philharmonic was left alone to produce a sound that was bland and not particularly Italianate. Unaccustomed to accompanying a vocalist, and probably under-rehearsed for this specific occasion, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded like a machine grinding through the proceedings without revealing much of anything. The opulent scores of Verdi and Puccini were not given proper care. It was as if a monotone IBM computer is tasked to read out a punch card – all the precision but none of the excitement. The only outlier was principal cellist Richard Bamping, who with a few committed solo phrases brought us from the raucous commotion following Cavaradossi’s aria to the solitary journey to Le Havre in Manon Lescaut. His phrasing spoke of a haunting desperation, in a voice that was ominous but arrestingly poetic.

St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

Fanfare Ciocarlia

Date: February 20, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Fanfare Ciocarlia is a twelve-person gypsy brass band hailing from northeast Romania. Suited up in black slacks, shiny shoes and oversized belt buckles, they dressed moderately, but there is nothing moderate about their music. Vibrant and punchy, their music speaks the language of a crackling dynamite. Slick trumpet lines show off their dexterous fingering. Horn and tuba provide the assured carpet flooring on which the human vocals and tweety brass lines dance. A bass drum not only anchors the procession with head-bobbing beats but awes with the occasional whiplashing sticking. The twelve musicians may each be doing something different, and the overall texture could sometimes sound cacophonic, but their phrasings always end with a rewarding unity that declares any turbulence merely temporal and insignificant. It takes no more than a song or two before the aisles of the concert hall at the Cultural Centre were filled with a large dancing audience. Gypsy reincarnations of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” or Ellington’s “Caravan” could sound cheesy at first, but upon closer inspection, these makeovers sound sincere — more like a fair commentary than an infringement of the original. Jazzed-up gypsy fares such as “Toba mare” and “Iag Bari” reflect their music’s full potential as a voice of lyricism and message. Fanfare Ciocarlia is a rare gem in today’s world of music, of any kind. If one were to nitpick, their facial expressions could be dull and stoic. Contrast that with the vibrant music, however, and one could sense the genie in the bottle lurking impatiently from within, and a fully gratifying, coordinated menace awaits.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in Hong Kong.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in Hong Kong.