Chinese opera

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊)

Date: August 2, 2014
Location: Ko Shan Theatre, Hong Kong.

Troupe: Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong (廣東海豐縣白字戲劇團)

Hailufeng Baizi (海陸豐白字戲) is a regional operatic art form still loved by local folks along the northeastern coast of Guangdong Province. Its origins can be traced back to late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty, when dialectic singing theatre from the neighboring Fujian Province started to make its way down the coast. Unlike other flavors of Chinese operas, where the libretto’s language often adheres to the prevailing official parlance of the time, Baizi is literalized from local speak and influenced by folk music. The regionalization of this art form makes it quite different from the body of work descending from and influenced by Beijing Opera/Kunqu. However, because of the compartmentalized nature of the region’s social culture, Baizi has never found a broad audience. In face of today’s onslaught of media and entertainment, the demand for Baizi’s artistry has waned in recent years.

Baizi proliferated at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and its repertoire has realigned accordingly. After a brief extinction towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, it resurrected, and one of the first operas to regain prominence on stage was Chrysanthemum (金葉菊), a story about justice and revenge. The story tells of a duke named Ma Yinglong (馬應龍) who had to fight an uphill battle against the treasonous instincts of Emperor Wanli’s relatives. Lin Tianyi (林天義), a loyal servant of a good general slain by the Emperor’s treasonous relative, entered the service of the treasonous camp a la Infernal Affairs to unearth evidence of treason. The daughter of the good general, Lin Yuejiao (林月嬌), after many years of banishment, reconnected with servant Lin and, together with Ma, eventually managed to foil the treachery of the bad camp, though not without significant loss of lives. Yu Jincheng (余錦程), Director of the Troupe, impressed in the role of Ma with clean delivery of his lines and a commanding stage presence – in a role that requires plenty of both. As the servant Lin, Yu Haiping (余海平), Deputy Director of the Troupe, portrayed one of unrelenting loyalty. Ma Sixiang (馬四香) had a good evening as daughter Lin: singing with grace and performing with a glowing stage presence. The letdown came mainly from Yu Ronggui (余榮貴)’s Emperor, who could not present prestige and stature, even for a diminished and severely flawed character. The production also exposed the downside of an art form untainted with the strict regimen of Beijing Opera/Kunqu: tables and chairs were set too close together (the Emperor had to use his legs to slide the chair away from the table before he could squeeze in – a serious faux pas in Chinese operatic arts). Various character actors (including imperial guards) looked like extras who have not had enough rehearsals and seemed dazzled and confused on stage. Dialectic differences and cultural compartmentalization may have contributed to the art form’s relative obscurity, but a lax approach to staging and discipline could also be non-trivial contributors.

For all of Baizi’s long history and cultural significance, it needs and deserves preservation. It’s up to those on stage and the patronage network off it to ensure its survival. Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences should be glad that their Government, with its generous financial support, was at least willing to take up its share of the bargain.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma. Photo Credit: Chinese Opera Festival/LCSD.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chamber music and recital, Orchestral music

KaJeng Wong/Loo/Music Lab: Ravel, Gershwin etc.

Date: August 4, 2014
Location: City Hall, Hong Kong.

Piano (Mussorgsky-Naoumoff): KaJeng Wong
Piano (Gershwin): Nancy Loo
Orchestra: The Music Lab Orchestra
Conductor: Wilson Ng

This evening program presented Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, followed by Emile Naoumoff’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Visual art works by various local artists, projected onto a gigantic screen above the orchestra, accompanied each musical piece.

Little was said about the premise of the visual art presentation, other than: (1) that the presentation would be related to Hong Kong and (2) that it would co-exist with music on stage. The program notes offered short paragraphs from some of the contributing visual artists, but no overarching explanation of the concept. Even KaJeng Wong, the prodigious 24-year-old and brainchild of the evening’s program, was at loss with words. In between the Debussy and the Ravel, Wong appeared on stage to announce that technicians needed some time to fix a projection problem. In the meantime, he tried unconvincingly to explain his concept. On the spur of the moment, Wong also initiated a makeshift Q&A with various musicians, asking them what they felt about the performance. Violist Samuel Pang, Wong’s childhood classmate, offered a partial bailout by eloquently but somewhat aimlessly stating the obvious — that here was a concert with images of Hong Kong and made by people who grew up in Hong Kong.

The busy streets of Hong Kong, captured in a series of time-lapse photo tableaux by photographer Cheung Chi Wai (張志偉), echoed some of Gershwin’s spirit of optimism in the kaleidoscope of a buzzing city. The amount of work was tedious and immensely time-consuming. As an artwork on its own, Cheung’s product carried a lot of substance and story. Yet when placed next to the music, the speed and color of the tableaux seemed unready to match up with the undulating dynamism of the composition’s tempi and tonal colors.

Nevertheless, better explanations could be found, after the concert, on the web. Oychir (愛卡), the artist responsible for the visual art during the Ravel, explained in her blog that during her creative period, her mind wandered when trying to understand the music, as if lost in space and forever banished from Earth: “感覺自己捉不到那歌,越畫越遠,精神迷路,迷到上太空,回不到地球”. Even Oychir herself blogged about being surprised to hear that the organizers were quite satisfied with her work – albeit in a tone of one who was more curiously puzzled than genuinely satisfied with her output, not necessarily in and of itself but specifically in its relation to this musical concert. In the end, the experimentation juxtaposing live music with visual art failed to impress with real consequence, even though Wong and his team should be commended for daring to try something different in a city where artistic experimentation, especially in respect of classical music, runs dry.

The audio portion of the concert was more refined and interesting. The Music Lab Orchestra, an ensemble effort loosely pieced together with music students and semi-pros, displayed a discernible level of concentration and musicianship rarely found in amateur orchestras. Their balance was elegant, and sections blended en tutti with plenty of credit going to vibrant and attentive conductor Wilson Ng, who was able to conduct most of the evening’s program from memory.

Nancy Loo, Wong’s childhood piano teacher and possibly the most revered piano teacher in Hong Kong in the past half a century, survived the Gershwin without making much of an impactful impression. To be sure, in the lighter legato passages, Loo’s playing was masterful and expansive: she would occasionally temper her pace just enough to offer a more deeply-nuanced, personal touch. But in Gershwin’s starker, faster passages, her fingers weighed on her momentum and interpretation, constricting her output to one of overworked caution. At times, Loo sounded and looked as if she was trying in vain to reach a pace and dynamic she would expect of herself but could not. Ng, standing at her side and often looking over her playing, valiantly kept the piano in synchronization with that of the orchestra. Loo most certainly has played the piece many times over her long and illustrious career as concert pianist and educator, but at least in this particular evening, she managed to show only what seemed to be short glimpses of her former self.

By contrast, KaJeng Wong displayed in the Mussorgsky-Naoumoff piece the sort of pace, power, and determination that were equally desired in Loo’s playing. When Wong dropped his first few chords, all the sound previously carpeted under the Steinway reemerged with flair and power. A former student of the arranging composer, Wong was in his typical self, running through the piano cadenzas with rapid pace and effusing bold confidence not usually seen in pianist of his age. The Mussorgsky-Naoumoff is usually listed as a concerto, but the composition is more akin to a symphonic duet between an orchestra and a piano where much of the musical drama occurs not in unison but via an ebb and flow of call and response. In that respect, the effort between Wong and Ng was a rather satisfying one.

Chamber music and recital

HK City Chamber/Die Konzertisten/Layton: Mozart Requiem

Date: September 2, 2012
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Die Konzertisten
City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
Stephen Layton, conductor

English conductor Stephen Layton has amassed an eclectic collection of commercial recordings over the years. His 2001 recording of Britten’s choral music, for which Layton received a Gramophone Award, included a diverse mix of songs, hymns and offerings. This evening’s programming of countrapuntal music served a similar plate of mixed choral goodies, including a motet (Bach’s Singet dem Herrn), a cantata (Jauchzet Gott, also by Bach), as well as Mozart Requiem. Layton conducted Die Konzertisten, a Hong Kong-based amateur chamber choir, and the City Chamber Orchestra, which comprised of local professional musicians. Die Konzertisten as a corpus was rhythmically alive and phrasally in unison, thanks much to Layton’s crisp and resolute conducting. The integrity of countrapuntal tonality would occasionally expose unattractive crevices in passages of quick crescendos, especially in the motet, but otherwise the group had an applaudable outing. Louise Kwong, a talented up-and-coming soprano, sang both soprano parts in Bach’s cantata and Requiem. In the fast aria section of the cantata, Kwong seemed uncomfortable with some of the long phrasings, and exhibited aspiration problems on numerous occasions. In the slower recitativo and second aria sections, her lyrical voice flourished, projecting an ample amount of tonal beauty. Her singing was generally desirable, but by rarely looking away from her handheld score, she offered insufficient emotive connection to the audience. That was especially evident at the end of Gott when she sang “Drauf singen wir zur Stund: Amen, wir werden es erlangen / To this we sing here now: Amen, we shall achieve it” mostly while staring at the score. Melody Sze, the mezzo in Requiem, traversed with meticulous detailing and care, so much so that she sounded as if she had to cautiously suppress an outpouring of her vocal reservoir to hold vocal balance. Christopher Leung’s tenor was groomed and well voiced. Alan Tsang offered a lyrical high baritone that was highly polished yet properly fervent, but his lower registers found very little support and were often drowned out by the orchestra, especially in his solo in Tuba mirum.

Chamber music and recital

Louis Siu: Recital

Date: March 1, 2012
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Louis Siu, a young and promising percussionist currently playing for the Macao Orchestra, presented a technically ambitious recital at the HKAPA Amphitheatre. The evening’s solo program swung between the brisk, whereupon Siu displayed seriously unreal mallet work in Alex Orfaly’s Rhapsody No. 2 for solo timpani, and the lyrical, where he crafted some smoothly delicious melodic arches in the African folksong-inspired Marimba Dances by Ross Edwards. The highlight of the evening was ensemble affair: a pair of world premieres of works by Alain Chiu and Austin Yip that dealt with the resonance and vibrating qualities of various percussive instruments. Chiu’s work, Resonantia Part 1, offered a rich layering of rhythmic fabric, with western and Chinese percussion locked in a fantastic duel of boundless energy. Yip’s Resonantia Part 2, scored as though it was the dramatic counterpoint to Chiu’s Part 1, was more nuanced and cerebral, with various percussive elements taking turns to shine as calls and responses of each other. The dependable trio of Chin-tung Chau, Rieko Koyama and Vicky Shin provided the necessary percussive resonance backing up Siu’s timpani in both parts. Together, the percussionists sounded like a pride of wild cats navigating familiar territory with crisp determination, yet mindful of each other. Accidental rim shots notwithstanding, Siu’s technical mastery of the art was somewhat marred by a lack of stage character, without which the musician looked stiff and robotic. In an evening with deeply cerebral and convoluted new music that wasn’t immediately pleasing to the average ears, Siu was perhaps taking himself too seriously. Overtly solemn and devoid of much public projection of emotions, his facial expression suggested a spent character who seemed more concerned about laboring to the finish than enjoying the moment. True or not, the severity of that perception cast a shadow over his technical skills and general mastery of his art.

Pop, jazz and rap

Yamapi Asia Tour 2011

Date: January 29, 2011
Location: Star Hall @ The HITEC, Hong Kong.

Tomohisa Yamashita (山下智久), better known as Yamapi (“Yama P”), is an actor, solo artist and a member of the Japanese boyband NEWS. He is best known as Dr. Aizawa Kousaku in Code Blue, Fuji TV’s ratings champ modeled loosely after Michael Crichton’s ER. Yamapi’s no non-sense character has won him plenty of fans, especially teenage girls who would probably trust this fictional doctor more than their real-life ones. But Yamapi the TV heartthrob may soon give way to Yamapi the solo superstar. Last Saturday’s gig at Star Hall kicked off Yamapi’s first-ever solo tour throughout Asia, and if it becomes the big hit that it has been hyped to be, and with a dearth of superstars who could sell out wherever they show, Yamapi would stand a good chance of becoming the next superstar in the mold of Takuya Kimura, the reigning dual-mode (i.e. TV and singing) big wig. Like most of the concert productions for artists of Johnny & Associates (Kimura-san is also under Johnny’s far-reaching media empire), this one featured plenty of pyrotechnics, Star Wars sabre-like lasers, and a long aerial platform that revealed itself from a catwalk protruding from the center proscenium. This platform would bring Yamapi aerially over and closer towards his fans during the show. Yamapi’s musical style is varied, with high-energy electric rock interspersed with mellower, more contemplative ballades. His first solo album, “Supergood, Superbad“, was released on January 26 and sported a hip-hop sound with a heavy dance beat. His live-show delivery style includes a mixture of choreographed dance moves and the occasional eye contact that would instantly melt the young girls’ heart. The audience, mostly young, fashionable and still in high school, would beat in mid air their glow sticks in unison, with the music as the rhythmic backdrop and Yamapi as the chief conductor. They would scream at such moment when the chief conductor would make eye contact or draw closer to them by traversing along the catwalk. The 8-strong band (keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and a string quartet), two brass players (saxophone and trumpet) and three backing vocalists ran the musical end of the show. ABCZ, an accompanying act with 5 boys, provided some moments of acrobatic sensation and comic relief, but otherwise wasn’t impressive enough to stand out on their own.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011. Image by:

Orchestral music

HK Phil/Rizzi/Antonacci: Ravel, Berlioz etc.

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

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

Anna Caterina Antonacci, in Hong Kong.

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

Pop, jazz and rap

Marsha N da Boyz

Date: January 27, 2011
Location: The Fringe Club, Hong Kong.

Marsha Yuan and a group of talented musicians dropped by The Fringe last night to take part in the City Festival, an urban cultural festival showcasing local talent through a diverse array of artistic activities. Yuan, a former beauty queen and a B-list actress who has since reinvented herself as a sultry vocalist, possessed an expressive and sensual voice, but had difficulty finding adequate vocal support and a proper breathing rhythm for much of the evening. As a veteran entertainer, she effused a commanding stage presence, wiggling and twisting her curvaceous body in sync with the music in a titillating manner, and reminded me of Jessica, Roger Rabbit’s confident and sassy female companion. Feigned eroticism aside, it was not Yuan, but the group of talented musicians, including Ted Lo on keyboards, Eugene Pao on guitar, Peter Scherr on bass and Jack Greminger on drums, who lured me to the Thursday late-evening show in the first place. Ted Lo’s unorthodox harmonic arrangement of some of the evening’s standard numbers, including Sway and Summertime, brought an edgy, almost wild, harmonic thesis and a provocative bass line. Pao dutifully performed, though his playing was as conservative as the average lounge musician trying not to appear terribly bored while playing that same improvised tune for the umpteenth time. I wish Pao would, as he most certainly could, venture more into the outskirts of atonal counterpoints, rather than relying on fast running blue scales and augmented fifths – two of his dependable albeit rather banal signature moves.

Marsha N da Boyz at The Fringe.

Marsha N da Boyz at The Fringe. Photo Credit: The Fringe Club.