Ballet and dance

Whipped Cream

Date: March 22, 2018
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Boy: Daniil Simkin
Princess Praline: Sarah Lane
Princess Tea Flower: Hee Seo
Prince Coffee: Cory Stearns
Prince Cocoa: Joseph Gorak
Don Zucchero: Blaine Hoven
Chef/Doctor: Alexei Agoudine
Marianne: Catherine Hurlin
Ladislav: Duncan Lyle
Boris: Roman Zhurbin

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Richard Strauss completed scores for only two ballets, one of which is Whipped Cream, premiered in 1924. The story tells of a boy who, after overindulging on whipped cream, falls ill and starts to hallucinate and dream of a world of dancing confections. The original production, with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, was meant to bring back memories of the glorious yesteryear, with veiled references to the preferred bygone days of (perhaps) the Hapsburg Empire. Alas, that premiere did not go well with the Austrian public; any nostalgic feelings were quickly nullified by the brutal reality during this period of First Republic: hyperinflation ran rampant, and Austrians (and much of the German-speaking Europe) were barely making their ends meet. Strauss resorted to defending himself by explaining that he merely wanted to create joy, but the ballet’s exuberance in the eyes of the impoverished public left such a bad taste that it was mothballed for much of the rest of the composer’s life.

ABT’s revival of Whipped Cream (albeit with new choreography) during one of modern age’s longest bull markets seems timely. Unemployment has been inching downwards (at least in America). Inflation remains stubbornly low. The majority of Americans is not impoverished by any modern standard. In this production, premiered last year, Alexei Ratmansky douses the Company with copious amount of busy choreography, with demanding jumps and turns for both men and women. Sure enough, Mark Ryden’s set and costumes have all the trappings of a gilded age that, while referencing a distant past, echoes a prosperous society in which we are supposedly living in. But is that true? Income disparity has been severe and getting worse; social inequity has been exacerbated by political hacks unwilling to reverse the status quo. And yet we all feel comfortable with the sets and costumes, as if we have become so elitist, and so gilded, that, even if the art is purely escapist and fictional, we could be rendered defenseless if accused of losing perspective and insight into the deeper, perhaps unseen, problems in society? If we can’t find the repugnance of an elitist art amidst poverty and injustice in the same manner that ballet goers found repugnance a century ago, what does it say about the ballet goers today? Are we elevating ballet to an elitist art form so much so that we could see, and relish seeing, the art as a narcissistic reflection of ourselves, while conveniently forgetting, if only for the fleeting moment, the rest of humanity who could barely make their ends meet, in this gilded age in the 21st century?

Ballet remains an elite, not necessarily elitist, art form – one that requires world-class training and hard work. For all the potential trappings of an elitist evening, this evening’s performance was undoubtedly a showcase of the elite. Daniil Simkin was sensational as the Boy, a role he created last year. His boyish and fun portrayal was in stark contrast to performances seen earlier: as Romeo, and in Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois” (in Taipei, in 2017, not reviewed). His grand écarts were bouncy and weightless, bending up well past the 180-degree line. His coupé jetés encircling the stage were so smooth and effortless, as if he was a wild animal roaming on four legs in free land. Sarah Lane, as Princess Praline, displayed strong upper-body strength, and acted with passion and commitment. Her jumps were, at least on this occasion, lacking suspension en l’air. Both Cory Stearns and Hee Seo had good evenings juggling between Ratmansky’s fiendishly complex choreography and dramatic eloquence, but between themselves, a chemistry languished aside. Blaine Hoven’s muscular movements as Don Zucchero were decisive without losing the role’s comedic angle. Joseph Gorak’s excellent Prince Cocoa reminded us how even a secondary role could enliven an evening’s experience, much in the way that a scintillating Mercutio could lift the entire experience of Romeo and Juliet. Catherine Hurlin starred brightly as Marianne, another secondary role. Hurlin’s flexible body untangled Ratmansky’s choreography with fluidic and seemingly painless ease. One would be forgiven for deeming her outstanding performance, coupled with genuine eye contact and ebullient smiles, the brightest star of the evening. Ratmansky’s choreography for corps was busy but not frenzied, and accorded soloists with extended solo sequences that well-matched the long arches of Strauss’ phrases. The final grand pas, filled with classical steps and references to the Le Corsaire and Don Quixote of the ballet world, romped with uninhibited abundance and fanfare.

Ormsby Wilkins, a resolute leader, gave a measured reading of Strauss’ score. The orchestra executed with clinical precision, and was trouble-free all evening save for a minor blip in the high horn passages towards the end. More emphasis on carving out long Straussian phrasings, instead of meticulously shaping individual notes’ intonation, would have been preferred. Mark Ryden’s set was astoundingly beautiful, with warm colors and creative props. A trolley which the Boy would eventually climb atop to claim the figurative confectionery crown was wonderfully decorated; it was also used only once. The theatre filled with a jolly good spirit. In the context of the society in which the production is performed, whether it can be considered lavish or wasteful, or both, is a matter that deserves to be debated on another day.

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Ballet and dance

La Bayadère

Date: February 16, 17, 18m, 18e, 19, 2017 (all five performances attended and reviewed as one)
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Patrice Bart, after Marius Petipa

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)

Bayerisches Staatsballett

Hong Kong Philharmonic (orchestra)
Michael Schmidtsdorff (conductor)

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.

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

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Orchestral music

HK Phil/Behzod Abduraimov

Date: July 1, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3
Elgar – Symphony No. 1

ENCORE (after Prokofiev)

Bach/Vivaldi – “Siciliano” from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Closing Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 2015/16 season was a pair of concerts featuring Uzbek sensation Behzod Abduraimov on the piano. The programming was not as curious as it was stale: just over a year ago, a similar concert featured a big Elgar piece (Engima Variations), a finger-breaking piano concerto (Rach 3), and the wizardry of Abduraimov. Surely, Abduraimov is always eagerly anticipated, while the music of Elgar deserves to be heard. But what purpose does setting up similar programs serve? The program notes surely could, and should have offered an explanation, lest the programmers be accused of simply being lazy for repeating what worked before?

That being said, the concert did not fail to impress. In his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev scores something that frenetically switches between the lyrical and the grotesque. This evening, Abduraimov juggled a well-balanced act by deftly altering between primal lyricism and blinding hysteria, all the while keeping an absurd level of energy. Some of his peers might pound out Prokofiev’s chords in nihilistic brutality, but Abduraimov’s approach to the keyboard was better thought out, with a combination of cultured sophistication and civility. The young pianist beamed with fiery and authoritative confidence, and did not for a moment sounded muddled or indecisive. This concerto requires an equal partner in the orchestra and the soloist, and Abduraimov was clearly attentive to his partner’s sonic motions here. He leaned forward a la Glenn Gould, but would often look up to synthesize with Ashkenazy’s conducting, which gave plenty of leeway to the pianist and the various orchestral soloists to shine through. The performance probably could have benefited from a slight pick-up in pace, as there were a few instances when the orchestra (especially the brass section) was moving too far behind Abduraimov. With “Sicilienne”, Abduraimov found the perfect coupling to calm down a delirious audience eager for some more. His pace was well-measured; his touch was airy; and his phrasing was smooth as floaty silk. His phrasing of the baroque material could bother a few with a slight romantic inclination, but otherwise no fault could reasonably be found in this incredibly well-executed encore. Here, he showed great potential in a much wider repertoire, away from oft-heard, finger-breaking piano concertos.

Elgar’s First is probably the most definitive British symphony, if only because Elgar unabashedly advocated its “Britishness”. That being said, it is well documented that Elgar might have borrowed from, or influenced by, the music of Wagner and Brahms. The construction of some lower strings points to Wälsung music in Die Walküre, while various woodwind harmony reminds one of Siegfried. Here, Ashkenazy seemed ready to peel away the gargantuan piece in piece-meal bits, slowly revealing and highlighting each and every important solos. This Elgar never sounded so much like a multi-instrument concerto, each with equal prominence over the course of the symphony. Ashkenazy’s pace was thoughtful and didactic, though a brisker pace would have been preferred. Overall, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded quite fine, if more Germanic than British, and was clearly more attentive and lively with Elgar than with Prokofiev.

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Chamber music and recital, Opera

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.

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Orchestral music

HK Phil/Yuja Wang

Date: June 13, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9
Beethoven – Symphony No. 3

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

Yuja Wang, who has cultivated an image of a fiery pianist conquering with ease every finger-breaking Russian piece available to mankind, is not known to be an interpreter of Mozart. On this occasion, she showed why she was not: her playing was somewhat distanced from the composition, and her reliance on the printed score in front of her, no matter how infrequently she referred to it, seemed to hinder her interpretation of the music. Conductor Jaap van Zweden indulged her further with the luxury of the occasional ritardando that could irritate Mozartean purists. Climactic passages came off sounding too contemporary and edgy for Mozart’s time. The ebb and flow of Mozart’s cadences reminded us more of Schubert’s wandering journey to death, or of the hypnotic flow of Brahms’ love poetry, than of the mature, steady classicism that a mid-career Mozart was supposed to offer. That said, Alfred Einstein would have agreed that this particular Mozart, with its impetuous and glorious tendencies, was far ahead of its time. Perhaps that was what Wang was going after here, but the end product, if not also the manner in which the output was produced, was rather unconvincing. Wang’s two encores – Horowitz’s Carmen variations and her variation of Rondo alla turca – were memorable in the sense that she was unabashedly relentless in showing off her fingering skills and not much else. When tempo seemed bottlenecked by impossible fingering, her finger would flash faster, with even more fiery brilliance. Between plenty of flashy displays of technique and speed, there was very little musicality to speak of. After intermission was Beethoven Third, the piece that Einstein found etymologically comparable to Mozart’s concerto. The orchestra’s intonation this evening was accurate and focused, and the musicians seemed to genuinely enjoy making music together. The brass section could sound a little too brash, or the strings a little too golden (perhaps too much Wagner recently?), but the output’s overall focus and balance must be commended with no reservation, especially as compared with the Philharmonic merely a few years ago. That said, van Zweden’s approach to Eroica failed to live up to heightened expectations. Narrative power is required of the piece which is essentially a totemic embodiment of Beethoven’s idealistic hero. Van Zweden’s execution this evening seemed to favor transient dramatic brilliance over narrative dramaturgy. The result was an Eroica beaming with occasional brilliance but lacking an interpretative voice, in much the same way that Wang’s concerto performance occurred with sparks but without having much to say.

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Opera

Das Rheingold (in Concert)

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

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Orchestral music

Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)

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