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.


Met Opera/Smelkov: Boris Godunov

Date: October 30, 2010 (matinee)
Conductor: Pavel Smelkov
Production: Peter Stein / Stephen Wadsworth
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

For all its Tsarist grandeur and the gravity of its history, Boris Godunov is not the most accessible of operas, at least to me, and is only made less so by plenty of low-register, narrative bass singing, in the Russian language no less, and typically in a dimly lit production that would last nearly 5 hours.

This Boris production does not impart the kind of visual pomposity that one would generally expect from the opera, but it compensates with an effective communication of ideas. For example, the central metaphor of this Stein/Wadsworth production is a human-sized book of history that sits on stage-left, and is meant to reveal Pimen’s version of historical events as juxtaposed in the opera. In one scene, Tsar Boris wrapped himself in the pages of the book, as if foretelling that, for all the limitless power he had as the Tsar, he was merely an object embroiled in the workings of fate – a pawn of history held captive by history’s inevitable moving forces. As another example, the Fool, who practically serves as a narrator of conscience and an arbiter of morality, is a literary creation removed from the actual history of Boris Godunov. Stein/Wadsworth uses a spot lighting atop the character, as if to separate this literary creation from the pawns of history. As yet another example, the Tsar’s throne often faces stage left, instead of towards the audience, as if to say that the audience was observing the unfolding of history from the sidelines, framed in a way that focused not merely on the facts of history (the fight for the seat of power) but also the sentimental turmoil surrounding it (what goes on behind the scenes).

Pavel Smelkov conducted a masterly performance that held together a gigantic orchestra and a massive chorus for a better part of this matinee performance. His Russian strokes were broad and sweeping, as if to dramatize the gravity of this episode’s place in Russian history. The romantic tinge in some of the big orchestral numbers formed a nice musical counterpoint to the porcelain-like delicacy of the several Russian folk songs. Smelkov managed the great bells scene at the end of the prologue with authority and clarity, and paced his way with a slow crescendo as the chorus procession moved into the cathedral.

Boris Godunov was sung by Rene Pape, who projected a physically imposing but mentally wrecked ruler of Russia. His Boris was, in fact, so sentimental and vulnerable as to demand sympathy from the audience. His death scene at the end was a poignant display of paternal affection and a commendable piece of poised acting. Vocally, Pape delivered his low registers with secure aplomb, and discharged Boris’ extremely difficult high notes with such effortless ease that would make any bass-baritone or baritone envious. Vladimir Ognovenko’s Varlaam provided the day’s only comedic relief, as his drunken character slowly revealed the secrets of Dimitri. His singing, however, did not match his acting as his vocal buildup that would foreshadow the outing of Dimitri was more like a big truck running out of gas than a coupe dashing towards the chequered flag.

Male alto Jonathan Makepeace’s performance as Feodor was an anomaly. His voice was a work of unadulterated beauty – and his singing showed – but dramatically he seemed confused on stage and never sure where next to move. Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen was a work of vocal wonder. As he charted the history of Russia, his sturdy bass lines provided precisely the sort of religious/regal vitality upon which the unfolding of the rest of the opera anchored. The raw earthiness and sincerity in his timbre gave context to his pious character. Ekaterina Semenchuk provided a scheming portrayal of Marina, and sang with a dark, syrupy voice and a confident top tessitura. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dimitri/Grigory had a formidable voice with ringing top notes. Andrey Popov’s Fool started weakly but recovered to sing with much conviction and confidence.

To be sure, this production was dimly lit and was still sung in Russian, and of course, some stage work was just too simplistic (for example, I found the monastery, portrayed simply by an archway on one side of the stage, not properly described, even as the monastery bells started to ring). Yet, it was the fantastic singing and genuine acting that made the five hours of performance, despite its flaws, an enjoyable one.

Rene Pape, in Boris Godunov