Wednesday, March 30, 2011

REVIEW: Tristan und Isolde by the Leipzig Opera

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday March 20

I was surprised that the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival's Tristan und Isolde went uneventful... Oh let me explain. You see, the last two times I saw the opera live, they were not exactly what I paid for.

In 2002, Ben Heppner cancelled in Wernicke's abstruse production for the Royal Opera House (London); instead, I got Wolfgang Müller-Lorenz. The wonderful performance of Lisa Gasteen just magnified Müller-Lorenz's shortcoming, while Bernard Haitink's remarkable handle of the piece just made me feel that it was an opportunity missed.

In 2008, Ben Heppner once again cancelled at The Metropolitan Opera (New York); this time he was replaced by Gary Lehman. Lehman's Tristan looked like Tristan. His voice was beautiful enough while his portrayal was believable. It was even more believable when in Act III, the wounded Tristan stretched out on a moving stage from the back of the stage to the front snapped and sent him head first crashing onto the prompter's box! He did continue to sing after some rest. With him were the superb Deborah Voigt and James Levine.

For Leipzig Opera's Tristan und Isolde, there was no cancellation and amazingly no accidents, despite the annoying oars lying around. I was sure, in several occasions that somebody would trip over them... oh well... Willy Decker's production was traditionally contemporary German (read boringly weird), designed to satisfy expectation of blandness.

Stefan Vinke's Tristan started off sounding nasal and weak, but quickly blossomed to a fine convincing voice that excelled in the reflective passages involving lyrical phrasing. Particularly in Act III, Vinke was dramatically effective with heightened sense of spontaneity.

Jennifer Wilson's Isolde, on the other hand, was vocally sumptuous right from the start. Top notes were fearless and unforced. However, as the night progressed, her voice showed signs of exhaustion.

Axel Kober lead the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra magnificently. The sadness and tragedy of the music were highlighted without slipping to superficial dramatic effects. The overall result was glowing and magisterial. The rest of the cast, particularly Susan Maclean's Brangrane and Matthew Best's King Marke, gave a stellar performance.

I can't help but feel proud that the Hong Kong Arts Festival has finally found the courage to premiere this work in Hong Kong (I can't believe that Tristan und Isolde was also making its Asian premiere); and they handled it beautifully. I am quite impressed with how they handled the length of the opera by providing snacks (almost a meal for me) during the interval... actually, come to think of it... I got more than what I paid for.


Tristan und Isolde
Music and Libretto: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Axel Kober
Director: Willy Decker
Designer: Wolfgang Gussman

Tristan: Stefan Vinke Isolde: Jennifer Wilson
Brangräne: Susan Maclean
King Marke: Matthew Best
Kurwenal: Anton Keremidtchiev
Melot: Jürgen Kurth
Shepherd/Sailor: Timothy Fallon
Steersman: Andreas David

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 18, 2011

REVIEW: Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Monday March 14

Riccardo Chailly and the world's oldest civic orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, started their full-house all-Dvorak concert with the Carnival Overture, Op 92. Chailly gave an exhilaratingly lush account of the piece and brought that tingling sensation that signaled one was in for a night of fine music.

With Leonidas Kavakos playing his Abergavenny Stradivarius of 1724 in the Violin Concert in A minor, Op 53, the expectation was high. However, I can't help but feel that the sound a bit muted... not that I can discriminate a Stradivarius from a Guarneri del Gesú, but the feeling did made me sit up and try to listen more carefully. Chailly presented a faithful and crisp account of the piece with hints of Slavonic flavour. Kavakos played with control and precision and appropriately clear in attack. I did wish though that there was a little bit more lilt in the finale which was clean and crisp in a fast speed. Overall, it was an admirable performance and The audience was further rewarded with an encore from Kavakos.

The second half was slated for Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op 70, arguably better than the more popular New World Symphony. The orchestra was committed and intense, while the tempi were consistently appropriate. Chailly infused the slow movements with Brahmsian touch while the Scherzo was flavored with Czech inflection that was warm in spring.

The evening was an unqualified success and Chailly graciously served up Dance No. 3 & 7 as encores.


14 March

Dvořák: Carnival Overture, Op 92
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53
- Leonidas Kavakos (Violin)
Dvořák: Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, March 14, 2011

REVIEW: Carnation (Nelken) by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theater, Sunday March 13

The works of Pina Bausch are like the dance theatre adaptation of the durian fruit; one either likes it a lot or dislikes it a lot. Her works brings out unconditional love or passionate hate. Every performance tends to be peppered with people leaving prematurely and people staying and applauding ardently.

This piece is entitled Carnation for the obvious reason. The whole stage is transformed into a field of pink carnations. This is THE idea and it was meant to be seen and soaked up before they get trampled and strewn around. And when I say “before”, I meant the moment one steps into the theatre. I believe that it was meant to evoke the feeling of peace and innocence. It didn’t take long before irony seeped into the piece; it started with an actor performing sign language to Gershwin’s The Man I Love, an immediate discontentment in contrary to the visual image presented.

What came after was a series of episodes that exposed childlike pleasures and pettiness. The lovely field of carnations that the performers were very careful not to disturb was slowly razed as the piece move along. The idyllic environment where the performers can dress or undress as they please, play games, hop around like rabbits were interrupted periodically by security guards with German shepherd dogs, and an official checking for passports. This show of authority slowly progressed to humiliating episodes like performers having to rub raw onions on their face or a woman being forced-fed.

Amazingly, the performance was interesting enough to make me want to see what else was coming; but now that I have seen everything, I can’t help but feel like the whole thing was a let-down. One can keep on thinking and analyzing the whole performance and try to make sense out of it, or just ask oneself whether one likes it or not, would recommend it or not; or would watch it again or not. My answer is I didn’t like it, wouldn’t recommend it and will not watch it again… and this is coming from somebody who likes Pina Bausch’s works.

Carnation (Nelken)

Creative Team:
Director and Choreographer: Pina Bausch
Artistic Directors: Dominique Mercy, Robert Sturm
Set Design: Peter Pabst
Costume Design: Marion Cito

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, March 13, 2011

REVIEW: Macbeth by Cheek by Jowl

Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, Saturday (Matinee) March 12

This was a bloodless and daggerless Macbeth.

This Cheek by Jowl Macbeth by Declan Donnellan is an exercise of maximum minimalism. While the stark dark set, least props and uniform black costume may have exemplified Cheek by Jowl and Donnellan’s style, it was definitely to the detriment of the play. The style pilfered the much-needed range and variety that pushes the story and develops the suspense. The production was so tediously monochrome that when Kelly Hotten, as the perky and spiky porter, appeared on stage, the scene became a much needed diversion.

Will Keen’s Macbeth and Anastasia Hille’s Lady Macbeth were a good match in intensity and they bounced off each others character so well that it was difficult to think of one without the other. The killings in this production were done without any props. In the case of Lady Mcduff and her son’s murder, the killing and dying was left to the victims to act-out. With any lesser actors, they would have appeared like having epileptic fits.

There were some very effective moments; one of them was the banquet scene. Here, Judith Greenwood’s lighting effectively delineated and highlighted Baquo’s entrance. It was simple and yet the intent was clear and eerie. Another was the use of whispers and echoes over the witches’ voices, mirroring the state of disturbed minds.

This production was a journey deep into the dark crevices of Macbeth’s heart and mind instead of Macbeth’s tale of hero becoming a tyrant; and a tyrant getting deposed.

By William Shakespeare

Produced by Cheek by Jowl in a co-production with barbicanbite10; Les Gémeaux/ Sceaux/ Scène Nationale; Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague; Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg; Théâtre du Nord, Lille and Théâtre de Namur/Centre dramatique

Creative Team:
Director: Declan Donnellan
Designer: Nick Ormerod
Associate and Movement Director: Jane Gibson
Lighting Designer: Judith Greenwood
Composer: Catherine Jayes
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson

Macbeth: Will Keen
Lady Macbeth: Anastasia Hille
Macduff: David Caves
Duncan/Scottish Doctor: David Collings
Porter/Lady Macduff: Kelly Hotten
Malcolm: Orlando James
Banquo: Ryan Kiggell
Thanes: Vincent Enderby, Jake Fairbrother, Nicholas Goode, Greg Kolpakchi, Edmund Wiseman

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 11, 2011

REVIEW: New York City Ballet (Programme 1)

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Saturday (Matinee) March 6

New York City Ballet is the biggest disappointment in my 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival calendar so far.

I was so surprised at how unsatisfied I feel after the performance and I attribute this feeling to the program, the uneven dancing and the unbelievably horrible singing.

The performance started off with George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. This piece is classicism in steroid and it quickly establishes the New York City Ballet’s significant association with Balanchine (co-founder and balletmaster). This, however, also unreasonably set the expectation of the company to be the ultimate interpreter and torchbearer of Balanchine’s works. Unfortunately, the moment the curtain was raised; one immediately feels that there was too much individualisms in the corps de ballet. The principals fared better though, especially in the engrossing pas de deux of Abi Stafford and Sebatien Marcovici in part II. As for the three pairs of principals in part I, there was one guy who I can’t take my eyes off… for the wrong reason. Based on the program, I can only assume that he was Andrew Scordato, his movements and body were a cacophony of inelegance and unrefined lines.

The second piece was Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. The best part of this piece was Susan Walters’ playing of Chopin. The dancers in totality were the best in the whole performance, BUT the choreography was a dozer. Okay, I am being mean… the choreography is like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for it to take flight, one needs Glenn Gould; but if it is played by an "ordinary” piano player, it would sound like a piano exercise meant to entertain an insomniac.

The performance ended with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite. I was hoping that great familiarity with the material will make it positively more relevant to me. What a let down. The dancing was good but not better than what one can find in a Broadway production of this musical. However, what was really dreadful was the singing; not the singing of the dancers, but the singing of the singers who doesn’t have to do anything else but just sing. Rob Lorey’s Something’s Coming was more like going and Lara Marie Himer’s Somewhere was more like nowhere. Now this is totally buffling! Is Broadway so busy right now that they can’t even spare a singer or two? There is one performer though that totally stood out and that was Georgina Pazcoguin as Anita. Here, you have an artist who can out-dance, out-sing and out-act anybody onstage all at the same time. Pazcoguin has to be the best Anita I have ever seen on stage. The ending of this piece calls for all the dancers onstage and the singers offstage to sing the last phrase of the song Somewhere… for a moment, I thought I just saw a high school production.

Programme 1
6 March 2011, 1:30pm

Symphony in Three Movements (Stravinsky/Balanchine)
Dances at a Gathering (Chopin/Robbins)
West Side Story Suite (Bernstein/Robbins)

Live Accompaniment: Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, March 7, 2011

SATOSHI on Letras Y Figuras and Alvaro Jimenez (Part 2)

Back in December 23 2010, I wrote a piece on Letras y Figuras ( after redicovering a Christmas card based on a Letras y Figuras painting by Alvaro Jimenez. Letras y Figuras is perhaps the most unique Filipino design arts during the Spanish colonial period. It is usually composed of different human figures, animals, plants and other objects that are creatively arranged, colored and shaded to form the name of the person who commissioned it.

Today, I am not so sure how many artists in the Philippines still practice this type of painting, not to mention how many people in the Philippines actually know of this art form. Because these type of paintings are usually commissions of the somebody's name, they go directly from the artists hand to the hands of the person who commission it. This means that the general public actually have very little opportunities to see one in a gallery, unless the painting features plain words such as Pasko (Christmas).

Satoshi 's Alvaro Jimenez Letras y Figuras painting, 2002

I got acquainted with this artform only after stumbling on a PASKO painting on the desk of the gallery manager of the Ayala Museum Gallery and Gift Shop in 2002. Together with it was the color proofs of the Christmas card (based on the painting) that the manager has developed for gift shop. Since then, I tried to find out more about the artist Alvaro Jimenez, but to no avail until I rediscover the Christmas cards in my desk drawer last year and tried to search the net again.

Serendipitously, a few months after I wrote the piece about Letras y Figuras, a close friend of the Alvaro Jimenez's daughter stumbled upon my piece and contacted me... to cut the long story short, a website dedicated to Alvaro Jimenez has been established and I get to interview and feature him!

Letras y Figuras Master: Alvaro Jimenez

SATOSHI KYO: When and how did you discover Letras y Figuras? Do you remember who the artist was?

ALAVRO JIMENEZ: It was in year 1988 when Mrs. Sonia P. Ner, former Director of Ayala Museum (Philippines)suggested that I do a Letras y Figuras “PASKO” (Filipino word for Christmas) without a background for the museum shop. I was lucky enough that my first attempt on Letras y Figuras was immediately accepted and printed to be one of their Christmas cards to be sold in their museum shop that same year. Though that time, I was already familiar with the works of the nineteenth-century visual chronicler Jose Honorato Lozano.

SK: What is it about Letras Y Figuras that attracts you?

AJ: It’s the magic of the artwork that attracts me more. When you look at it, its just a plain painting; but a deeper or closer look, you will be able to identify or recognize the figures and surprisingly they form into letters.

(left to right) Mr. and Mrs. Alvaro Jimenez with Former Philippine Present Corazon C. Aquino

SK: What makes a good Letras Y Figuras?

AJ: A good Letras y Figuras is a combination of a good layout, a unique composition of figures to form the letter and its colors. And also, the figures that is formed to make the letters should coincide with the background. In addition to that, when you take a look at the whole artwork, you would not easily identify the letters, unless you take a look at it from a far or by squinting your eyes, that makes the Letras y Figuras more interesting.

SK: What is the most difficult part in creating a Letras Y Figuras painting?

AJ: The most difficult part in creating a Letras y Figuras is the individual composition of figures to form the letter. Because each Letras y Figuras artwork has its own theme and subject.

SK: Do you create a new design for each letter each time there’s a new commission?

AJ: Each letter is an original composition and will not be repeated at all.

(left to right) Phil. Transportation & Communications Secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus, Corazon C. Aquino, Mr. and Mrs. Alvaro Jimenez

SK: When people commission a work, what do they usually request, require or ask about?

AJ: Most of my previous commissioned works were related to Philippine culture and tradition which includes Philippine festivities or fiesta. And as for the background, i usually include old churches, ancestral houses and Philippine sceneries.

SK: Anybody famous that you have done Letras Y Figuras for?

AJ: I was lucky enough and honored to have done commissioned works for some highly respected personalities like Queen Sophia of Spain, former President Corazon C. Aquino, former President Fidel V. Ramos, Dr. Jaime c. Laya, Don Jaime and Bea Zobel, Juan Miguel Ongsiako y Villanueva, Antonio Floriendo, Emilio T. Yap, Henry Gozon, Rosvida Alcantara Dominguez and Irene Marcos Araneta.

His Majesty Queen Sofia of Spain (1st lady from the right) presented with a Jimenez Letras y Figuras painting during her visit to the Philippines in 2008 for the Philippine Independence Centennial celebration

SK: Do you know of anybody else doing Letras Y Figuras? Who are they?

AJ: I don’t know any particular artist who also does Letras y Figuras at present, but Instituto Cervantes has conducted a Letras y Figuras competiton before and their works were then exhibited at Metropolitan Museum of Manila in 2005.

A fine example of a biographical Letras y Figuras painting: this is for a Philippine TV network CEO.

SK: Does anybody else in your family does Letras Y Figuras?

AJ: No one.

SK: What do you think is the future of Letras Y Figuras in the Philippines?

AJ: I am hoping that in the near future, more people would appreciate this kind of artwork.

A typical commission usually includes an old church and ancestral houses

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 6, 2011

REVIEW: Angelika Kirchschlager with the Basel Chamber Orchestra (kammerorchesterbasel)

City Hall Concert Hall, Saturday March 5

Kirchschlager was fabulous, but the program was so-so…

This concert featuring Angelika Kirchschlager and the Basel Chamber Orchestra led by Kristjan Jarvi was part of the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival. The weird thing was the concert was not full and I am not sure whether it was because there were not enough bookings or the Festival just made some ticketing errors as my friend who wants to get another ticket for his visiting mother was informed that it was sold out.

Jean Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela started the concert with the orchestra providing a lyrical performance with an eerie undertone. The choice for Martin Jaggi’s Trieb was obviously because he is a “Baselian”… and nothing else…

The best part of the evening came early with Richard Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder. Instead of the Mottl orchestration, the evening used Hanze’s sparer and subtle arrangement, making the texture more private and intimate. As for Austrian Angelika Kirchschlager, she sounded WAY better than her recordings. Her lower registers have an attractive mellow creamy quality to them; while her higher registers, though a bit thin, never sounded forced. Most importantly, she got to the heart of the words.

The orchestra pull out all the stops for a stirring rendition of Kristjan Jarvi’s own arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Concert Suite. While it contains lovely music, I can’t help but feel that it was a tad bitsy. The short participation of Kirchschlager in this final piece is a disappointment; but it might as well be for the best, as the songs didn’t seem to suit her as well as the Wesendonk Lieder.

Angelika Kirchschlager with the Basel Chamber Orchestra (kammerorchesterbasel)

Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
Jaggi: Trieb
Wagner: Wesendonk Lieder (arranged by Hans Werner Henze)
Grieg: Peer Gynt Concert Suite for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra (arranged by Kristjan Järvi)

Conductor: Kristjan Järvi
Mezzo-Soprano: Angelika Kirchschlager

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 4, 2011

REVIEW: Halle Orchestra with Mark Elder

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Thursday February 3

The Halle Orchestra with Sir Mark Elder delivered the goods on March 3.

This concert, part of the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival, started with Sir Mark Elder introducing the first piece by British Composer Thomas Ades. Ades’ Three Dances from Powder Her Face is a ten-minute suite of three pieces of music from Ades’ chamber opera Powder Her Face. While the opera is scored for a small orchestra, this suite was given a treatment for larger orchestra. The result is beguiling and the Halle brought out the style and texture to great achievement.

Elder appropriately didn’t introduce the second piece which was Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85 with Alban Gerhardt as the soloist. Now, I have to say that I am still stuck with Jacqueline du Pre on this one and no matter how I try; I have difficulty opening up my mind to other propositions. Gerhardt offered a committed performance that was urgent with a touch of anguish; but from where I was seated (stage left), the solos sounded underplayed… my fault.

After the interval came the highlight of the evening, Elder introduced Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2, A London Symphony. Elder took on the symphony with a classic point of view and infused the feeling of London from dawn to dusk with drama. The orchestra responded with vividness and clarity.

Halle Orchestra
Mark Elder (Conductor)

Adès: Dances from Powder Her Face
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85
- Alban Gerhardt (Cello)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 2, A London Symphony

Labels: , , , , , , ,