Ethereal is the Moon

Date: March 12, 2017
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Chan Hing-yan – Ethereal is the Moon
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Wang Ying-chieh (huqin)
Colleen Lee (piano)
Yip Wing-sie (conductor)

Premiered during Sinfonietta’s tour in Taiwan back in November 2016, “Ethereal is the Moon” is the sixth of composer Chan Hing-yan’s commissions for the orchestra. The composition was originally conceived to celebrate the 20th anniversary of collaboration between the composer and the orchestra (their first collaboration, “Enigmas of the Moon”, was premiered in 1998). After Chan completed “Ethereal” in September 2016, two years earlier than planned, the piece was swiftly picked for the orchestra’s tour.

The piece is cast in five movements, each elaborating on one line of Chan’s five-lined, eponymous poem:

Scrawny Horse’s Hooves on Waning Crescent
Moon-embalmed, a Dead Flower Lies in State —
Full Moon Leans to Outline Raven Shadows
Frost-bruised Blossoms Hide the Moonbeam’s Chill —
Lunar Halo Mourns the Mountain Demons

In the music, the first, third and fifth assert with dominant themes. The second and fourth, offering light orchestration and mellow musical structures, not only act as connecting interludes but mirror the motionless sensibility of the poem’s second and fourth lines. This alternating structure further reminds us of the Shostakovich, also structured in five movements, with two mellow movements on either side of the scintillating third. The third movement of “Ethereal” includes a rapid-firing huqin motif that repeats throughout the movement. Played here by Wang Ying-chieh, the motif reminds us of the foundation motif in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. In terms of construct, “Ethereal” is comparable to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. In terms of tonal color, solemn themes and overall melancholic mood, however, the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 11 seems more related.

The opening first movement of “Ethereal” is funereal, almost to the point of apocalypse. Here, Wang’s huqin was juxtaposed frequently in semi-tonal digression by the first violins. The effect was hauntingly surreal. A suffocating air of bleakness seemed to creep in slowly, turning the evening into one of near lifelessness. The second and fourth movements offer no particularly discerning theme, but the harmonic structure is completed with intricate layers of long holding notes by lower strings and lower brasses — a treatment that may well be a tribute to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Whether Shostakovich’s music has actually influenced “Ethereal” is a question yet to be explored, but “Ethereal” very well holds its own in terms of contrasts, details, and its expressiveness. The huqin line offered by Wang is both poetic and vivaciously detailed, and reveals Chan’s committed effort to showcase the instrument’s versatility as a purveyor, respectively, of melody and of texture.

The showcase of versatility was unfortunately not continued in Colleen Lee’s performance in Ravel. Lee’s piano playing was precise and clinical, but was powerless as a voice or as a dramatic device. The piece’s famously jazzy lines were rendered with a Bach-like rigidity. Even a hint of Mozartean playfulness could have offered a more forceful impact. In moments where horns and woodwinds soared with blood-boiling, high-wired dramatics, the piano line failed to answer with a properly balanced counterpoint. That was not to suggest that Lee, who is a past Chopin prize winner, limped to a finish; it was simply that, even as Lee breezed through the Ravel without any difficulty, there was very little emotional or dramatic dialogue between the orchestra and the concerto instrument.

After intermission, we were brought back to “Ethereal”’s structural twin but emotional nemesis. The sole purpose of Shostakovich’s comedic piece could be, jokingly, referred to as a dramatically futile mad dash from the start to the finish. If “Ethereal” is sincere and serious, this Shostakovich is probably anything but. Curiously, Yip offered a cerebral account of the first two movements, as if appearing to stall, or at least slow down, the inevitable dash to the end. The upper violins offered lush phrasings that veered towards Brahmsian sentimentality. Slowly but surely, Yip began to build momentum in the third, but may have overshot her pace so much so that the first bassoon, which holds perhaps the key to the entire work, was barely catching up with the rapid fingering. In the end, the orchestral coloring could be said to be more heroic than comedic, more romantic than satirical. The output would have pleased Stalin, but probably not, at least not necessarily, the composer himself.

Ethereal is the Moon: a program presented under Hong Kong Arts Festival. Photo credit: Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

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Benjamin Grosvenor recital

Date: November 17, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Mendelssohn — Two Preludes & Fugues from Op. 35
Chopin — Barcarolle op. 60
Chopin — Mazurkas Op. 63 No. 2 & Op. 30 No. 4
Chopin — Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante
Ravel — Le Tombeau de Couperin
Liszt — Venezia e Napoli

ENCORES
Gershwin — “Love Walked In” (arr. Percy Grainger)

Dohnanyi — Concert Etude, Op. 28, No. 6 (“Capriccio”) from 6 Concert Etudes

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Benjamin Grosvenor, declared by The New York Times to be the Boy Lord of the Piano, is certainly an electrifying pianist. His lightning fingering dazzles with fiendish delight. His treatment of softer passages brims with a nursing attentiveness, while in louder passages he could easily summon a stentorian intensity. His piano output glows with confidence, and he exhibits the rare gift of keeping a steady tempo. In two encores, especially the devilishly impossible Dohnanyi, his hands danced on the keyboard with practically no wrong notes, at an impossibly(!) and consistently(!!) fast tempo, and discharged an air of caffeinated intensity that could handily transform Slowpoke into Speedy Rodriguez. But Grosvenor’s playing lacked any meaningful conversational power. At the start of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, just as the chimes of the octaves signaled a heightened level of expectation, the result came crashing to naught. Notes overflowed aplenty, but melodic transmission faded away, as if a telegraph wire couldn’t stop dit-dahing but no meaning came out of it. In the first tableaux, Gondoliera, of Venezia e Napoli, the lyrics of Peruchini’s gondolier song could have offered plenty of interpretative materials: “As I gazed intently / at my love’s features, / her little face so smooth, / that mouth, and that lovely breast; / I felt in my heart / a longing, a desire, / a kind of bliss / which I cannot describe!” Grosvenor’s playing was elegant and precise, but no thoughts could be culled from his playing. His hands created plenty of empirical tonal warmth but also a soulless sink hole. In the Tarantella, clinical precision overshadowed, if not entirely dispelled anything that could have come from his heart. Harmony and emotions were obliterated by the sheer force of perfect technique, which seemed, unfortunately, to be the sole star of the evening. The same can be said of the Chopins, especially the Grande Polonaise Brillante, which came with lots of fireworks in individual notes but very little by way of expressive phrasing. With “Love Walked In”, Grosvenor was more expressive, but still lacked the courage to make meaning out of Gershwin’s words: “One look, and I forgot the gloom of the past / One look and I had found my future at last / One look and I had found a world completely new / When love walked in with you.” The only explanation, whether fair or not, is that he has not an abundance of life’s experience to influence his expression. Grosvenor is a seriously talented musician with perhaps the most immaculate touch among all pianists in his generation (bar none!!!), but only time will tell if the Boy Lord could eventually graduate to become a real Lord of our time.

Mikhail Rudy

Date: March 15, 2015 (matinee)
Location: City Hall, Hong Kong.

The Sound of Colours (Animated film by Mikhail Rudy)
Gluck/Sgambati – Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice
Mozart – Fantasia in D minor, K397
Wagner/Liszt – Isolde’s Liebestod, S447
Debussy – Étude pour les quartes, Étude pour les huit doigts
Ravel – La valse

Mikhail Rudy, the Russian-born pianist who gave a recital at Marc Chagall’s 90th birthday, was close to the painter in his final years. In 2013, on occasion of the 40th anniversary of The Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, Rudy created The Sound of Colours, a multimedia artwork, with full support from Chagall’s family. The Sound of Colours is essentially a music tableau accompanying an animated video projection of Chagall’s work at the ceiling of Palais Garnier. The music tableau features works by Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel. When arpeggios roll off and chords drop, the static images in Chagall’s work become alive. Ballerinas flex their limbs. Wings flap about. Couples move into a tight embrace. As the music progresses, so does the video projection, each seemingly ready to narrate and adorn the other. When colors flash by on screen, rapid notations promise to serve as a complementary, vibrant counterpoint.

When all tried to come together this afternoon, however, the delivery could not live up to its promise. As a pianist, Rudy was a disappointment. His playing verged towards an unclean, reckless abandon. At 61, he is not expected to be past his prime, but his output sounded as though his fingers were past, if not their physical prime, certainly his train of thoughts. The nervous energy robbed his playing of any chance of substantive conversational power. As an example, unless my hearing was failing that day, Rudy did not press all the keys in the melodic lines of the first phrase in Wagner’s Liebestod – not that, for anyone who could manage Ravel’s La valse – there should be any technical difficulty to do so. Also, as Wagner’s melodic lines wove from the right hand to the left, Rudy seemed to struggle with a proper balance between his hands. This same balance issue surfaced again, even more glaringly, during the second of Rudy’s three encores: a piano reduction of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights in Romeo and Juliet. In both cases, the smudged melodic lines sounded skittish and unconvincing. This deficiency alone was somewhat fatal, because at least in The Sound of Colours, the piano playing was supposed to have some sort of narrating power in parallel to what was projected on screen – the lack of which resulted in a multimedia presentation in which one medium became not a complement of but a burden to the other.

That being said, I admire Rudy as an artist – someone who dares to mix classical with new-age multimedia, and someone who dares to offer a new class of multi-sensual experience. Even though Marc Chagall intended his ceiling motifs to refer to operas and ballets, Rudy’s curation of mostly non-operatic music seems worthy of the visual subjects. Finally, not every 61-year-old could go through a 90-minute program and retain enough juices to entertain three more encores. In the end, the video animation is, to be fair, interesting all by itself, though not necessarily for the price of a concert hall ticket.

Mikhail Rudy in Hong Kong.

Mikhail Rudy in Hong Kong. Image credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

KaJeng Wong, Nancy Loo, Music Lab

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 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.