Chamber music and recital

Mikhail Rudy: Recital

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.

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Ballet and dance

ABT: Romeo and Juliet

Date: February 27 to March 3, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27: Roberto Bolle and Hee Seo
February 28: Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova
March 1: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera
March 2 (matinee): Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova
March 2: Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes
March 3 (matinee): Alexandre Hammoudi and Hee Seo
March 3: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera

American Ballet Theatre

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Charles Barker (all dates except February 28), David LaMarche (February 28) (conductors)

ABT has presented Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for what seems like an eternity. Despite its age, Nicholas Georgiadis’s scenery and costumes remain pictorially perfect, like a fresh Canaletto townscape. While this realism leaves little for the imagination, this Romeo and Juliet aims to shock and awe through scenes after scenes of impressionable visual beauty.

On close up, the props and scenery show signs of age. Visually, the traveling set seems slightly smaller than the one used at the Met, especially in the upstage balcony areas. The stage width also seems slightly narrower than the one at the Met, making the ballroom scene feel a little squeezed, though ABT’s dancers moved, kicked and spun about with no signs of spatial congestion. The costumes, some of which dated back to ABT’s original premiere at the Kennedy Center some three decades ago, do not look its age, thanks in part to ABT’s current program to replace some of these dated wear, but mostly due to the expertise and meticulous upbringing of the Bruce Horowitz-led wardrobe department.

This MacMillan/Georgiadis endeavor focuses as much on dance as it does on acting. Choreography here becomes not just an art of coordinating dance movements but also a craft of managing a monstrous flow of non-ballet dancing actors. In the Act I and II market scenes, characters weave in and out of the stage in a complex array of motion, with traffic always nearby but never in the way of others. In the fight scenes, real épées whisk about in quick fury, with a hovering danger of actually hurting someone. In one evening, Sascha Radetsky, as Tybalt, was bloodied in his Act II fight scene, and, on more than one occasion, the épée simply snapped on stage. In big dance routines, coordination with Prokofiev’s orchestral moments remains paramount. When Prokofiev suggests death and the person is still lingering alive on stage, something becomes disconnected. The intricate tapestry of motion and action is the hallmark of this production. There may be occasional aberrations, but for much of the past thirty years this has been the same, day in and day out, thanks much to the in-house ballet masters and mistresses. ABT’s seven performances in Hong Kong were mostly identical in style and tone, differing only in sentimentality as the two principals offered their own renditions within MacMillan’s interpretative framework.

Five Romeos and four Juliets shared duties over seven performances. In the opening performance, Hee Seo was not even supposed to be there: she replaced Julie Kent, who was injured. Seo’s pinch-hit was remarkable because she just a few nights ago danced the demanding lead role, twice, in The Leaves Are Fading. Seo’s Juliet (Feb. 27; Mar. 3 mat) brimmed with a fountain of youth, whether making music for her friends during the mandolin dance or clowning around with her nurse. Her carefully placed emotions – from an Act I Juliet still reeling from the fresh taste of love to an Act III Juliet resolute in planning her faked death – demonstrated her maturity not just as a dancer but as a serious dramatic actor. A smooth dancer, Seo moved on stage like a marble rolling in melted butter.

What made Polina Semionova a special Juliet (Feb. 28; Mar. 2 mat) was that when she danced, she also presented a master class in the artistry of lines at rest and in motion. The arching of her body was a thing of wonder; her pointe work, always rapid but modest, looked like rain droplets kissing spring meadows. As a dramatic actor, Semionova had a clear sense of where her audience was. Without directly addressing downstage, her young Juliet would frequently start opening up towards her audience, only to recoil in shy humility, as if confessing bits, rather than the entirety, of her coyness.

Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes were two reliable Juliets. Herrera’s Juliet (Mar. 1 and 3) was dramatically eloquent, whether radiating a childish happiness in front of her nurse or emoting horror in front of Paris. Her eyes, full of expressiveness, suggested a Juliet with boundless imagination. Reyes was brisk in movement and measured at rest. Her Juliet (Mar. 2) was characterized with such frailty that made one want to shelter her right away.

Roberto Bolle danced two performances as Romeo (Feb. 27; Mar. 2 mat). Bolle was a strong dancer with sturdy landings; in Bolle’s muscular arms, Seo and Semionova were airy and weightless. Bolle’s Romeo retained an air of gentle innocence even as the weight of Montague nobility consumed him. When Rosaline declined his advances, he responded with a dovish smile, as though nothing so trivial could possibly unnerve him. The Bolle-Semionova pair stood out because they proved to be proficient and naturally at ease with their routines, and when their bodies contacted, they found mutual reliance. Their final pas de deux was properly desperate and committed. The high level of artistry catalyzed the rest of the cast, which responded with a heightened focus and geared-up energy levels.

Gomes started his performance (Feb. 28) with heavy landings and awkward breaths, but recovered soon enough to deliver a serviceable balcony pas de deux. He seemed more at ease from then on, though neither dazzling nor suffocating. Cory Stearns’s boyish good looks undid him: he appeared too readily flummoxed by Rosaline’s rejection, and looked more confused than vengeful in his fight with Tybalt at the end of Act II. At times, Stearns (Mar. 1 and 3) looked like he was more infatuated than in love with Juliet. Dramatics aside, Stearns was a reliable performer, with brisk turns and mind-boggling elevation. His long arms also allowed him to lift Herrera with grace and clarity. Hammoudi (Mar. 3 mat) did not look at ease from the beginning, but calmed down enough to deliver a sultry performance with Seo in their balcony scene. In their respective pas de deux, Gomes’ performance was athletic and buoyant; Stearns’ was clinical and fluid; and Hammoudi’s was beautifully asphyxiating.

Finally, there was Herman Cornejo (Mar. 2). His aerials were superb and effortless, and his steps were steady and clean. Most spectacularly, his pirouettes were always executed with stunning velocity and a crisp finish. The pairing of Cornejo and Reyes, like that of Bolle and Semionova, was a revelation. Delicate and expressive, they didn’t merely dance the steps of Romeo and Juliet, but breathed the two Veronians as if their own. The pair seemed intoxicated by each other in both pas de deux, and when they looked at each other, their eye contact seemed tender and intuitive. Any spontaneous eruption of emotion was readily received and absorbed by the other partner, like two soul-mates in an intimate conversation. These two were also most attuned to Prokofiev’s music, always in fine synchronization.

The rest of the cast was solid. Daniil Simkin nailed his Benvolio steps without breaking a sweat, but always looked like he didn’t care too much for the role. Craig Salstein played a fiendishly fun-loving Mercutio who seemed destined to be betrayed by his wit and provocations. Susan Jones was vastly impressionable as Juliet’s nurse: when Capulet rejected her plea to alleviate Juliet’s circumstances in Act III, her display of dejection and helplessness was poignant and entirely believable. With Prokofiev’s brass raging furiously, it was only appropriate that Stella Abrera, as Lady Capulet bemoaning Tybalt’s death, went dramatically overboard in that short but consequential bit at the end of Act II.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta had little feel for Prokofiev’s score. As the ancient grudge on that fair day in Verona broke into mayhem and Prokofiev’s music was supposed to soar with an apocalyptic urgency, the Sinfonietta barely nudged an impact. Mistakes littered throughout the seven performances, sometimes repeatedly and often deadly, in crucial moments such as the soaring trumpets at Tybalt’s death, the fast trumpet articulations at the beginning of Act II, and the horns at Capulet’s tomb. The mandolin dance, lacking bite, was anemic and unpersuasive. It was understandable that some dancers, already having danced in this production for the umpteenth time, put themselves in cruise-control mode, but it was simply unconscionable that the pit could not raise their game, never mind inspire those on and off stage.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

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