Opera, Orchestral music

San Carlo/Abbado: Viva Verdi

Date: March 22, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Performer: San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival closes with Viva Verdi, a program highlighting the Italian composer’s outstanding choral music. The choral selections – Gli arredi festivi and the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco, O Signore dal tetto nation from I Lombardi, and the anvil chorus from Il Trovatore – were sung by the San Carlo Chorus, whose nearly eighty voices meshed in perfect unison. Their dynamic control was especially impressive, with pianissimo releasing as if from a distant past, and with forte so roof-shattering that the entire city had to have felt some serious judder of seismic proportions. In Gli arredi festivi, the flood lights in the auditorium were seen vibrating, as if reacting nervously to Verdi’s choral majesty. If describing that the slaves chorus sent a shiver up one’s spine was cliché, it was also quite appropriate and, at least to this reviewer, true. The ebb and flow of musical energy between the chorus and the strings in Va pensiero’s fourth stanza were truly chilling, even in a well-lit concert setting without an opera director’s vision of the slaves’ lamentation.

Listening to a handful of Verdi’s choral music, one after another, without interruption is akin to eating entrees after entrees of meats without so much as a green leaf or two. As such, inserted between choral pieces were various lighter orchestral bits, including Luisa Miller’s Overture, which features a sprightly clarinet solo, the Act III prelude in I Lombardi, with its feisty violin solo, and the prelude to I masnadieri, with its melancholic cello solo. Also included was Libera me in Verdi’s Requiem. Neither too meaty nor leafy, the piece presented a case of what Verdi could achieve in between: powerful yet diligent, blood-boiling yet properly dignified. Monica Tarone, as the Requiem’s expressive cantor, phrased her versicles with a soothing beauty. Her upper registers were clear and well-placed, but her lower registers languished, often submerged by the avalanche of the orchestra and the chorus.

The San Carlo Orchestra was a fine bunch, with their rendition of the I vespri siciliani overture being a case in point: pleasingly lyrical at the beginning, and authoritative and zesty towards the coda. However, they could sometimes get a little too loud, and seemed to have forgotten, especially the lower brasses, that they were no longer playing in the pit.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.

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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.

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