Chamber music and recital

Toolbox Percussion: Bricolage

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.



Chamber music and recital

Sabrina Ma: Recital

Date: July 26, 2014
Location: City Hall Theatre, Hong Kong.

Sabrina Ma has been playing percussion for more than 20 years, and if one pays no attention to her youthful presence on stage and the giddy smile set free after that occasional mishit, Ma looks confident and mature beyond her age. Still in her twenties, Ma has already completed her music education in three continents, roamed around the world competing and collecting trophies, collaborated with artists from different cultures and experimented with pop music and improvisations in inter-disciplinary works. Her recital in Hong Kong this weekend reflected as much her character as her musical journey. Her first number was “Heimlich, still und leise”, a 2013 composition for film by violinist Benedikt Bindewald whereby Ma played a range of percussive instruments over a pre-arranged soundtrack of humming voice and electronic music. With a repetitive but snappy melody, the soundtrack unveiled itself as a sleepy but certain through train. Ma’s playing over, too certain and assured to be improvisatory, nevertheless added ample textural surprises, like a bouncy Wile E. Coyote chasing the cool train of The Road Runner. With Paul Smadbeck’s Rhythm Song, Ma’s second number returned to more traditional fare: Ma showcased her mallet skills, ripping through Smadbeck’s treacherous four-mallet work and seemingly ready to tell a story behind it. Ma closed the first half with Rebonds A & B by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Here, Ma unleashed single-handed quadruplets with stunning efficiency and evenness. The rhythms were like flying shrapnel coming out not from a disorderly explosion but from a well-oiled, well-controlled factory.

After a slightly prolonged intermission, Ma returned on stage to perform Cálculo secreto, a delicious vibraphone number by José Manuel López López. In Ma’s vision, this piece tasted like celestial music punctuated with sixties’ extraterrestrial sentimentality and regimen. The sophistication and timing of Ma’s pedaling work wove a thoroughly intricate musical fabric with multiple layers that thickened and thinned with a rollicking passing of time. Her final three numbers were all 21st century compositions: The Art of Thangka by Emiko Uchiyama, Khan Variations by Alejandro Viñao, and Havana by Rilli Willow. Each presented an ethnic sentimentality (Japanese, Arabic, Jewish) that Ma portrayed with fine aplomb, even if Ma would occasionally lose concentration and find no clean clearance on the keys. Havana was a love poem in vocals played over the monitors, over which Ma showered with well-thought-out, purposeful percussive goodies. Simple work on the bass drums, a few notes on the keyboard and an honest connection with the piece throughout were all that Ma needed to bring zest and a living pulse to the vocal piece.

Sabrina Ma.

Sabrina Ma.