Wednesday, June 29, 2011

REVIEW: White Haired Girl by the Shanghai Ballet Company (Guangzhou)

Guangzhou Opera House (Guangzhou), Sunday June 19

Ballet in China is defined by two works: The Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl. The former one, I saw about 14 years ago in Beijing, while the latter one, this was going to be my first time.

Overall, the experience was not a pleasant one. It was very difficult to concentrate on the ballet when the people around me were talking; and I didn’t mean one or two, it was about 30% to 40 % of the audience. As for the older audience, who practically grew up and were programmed by this ballet, some of them actually decided that it was a chance for some sing-along.

On whatever energy I was able to summon to appreciate the ballet, the ballet was as clear as a ballet can be. Clarity of intention and character came with the help of songs that relate the story and emotions, while the music echoes the movements and purpose of the characters. Mime, inevitably, became an integral part of this performing art.

To judge the ballet using a western standard would be the biggest mistake one can make. This ballet was not meant to be an artistic achievement of technical difficulties or subtle dramatic display. It was, after all, one of the Eight Model Plays (6 operas and 2 ballets) planned and engineered by Jiang Qing (wife of Mao Zedong) during the Cultural Revolution based on Mao’s idea that “art must serve the interests of the workers, peasants and soldiers and must conform to proletarian ideology”.

With the above context, the ballet was a good study of how this Western art form got a Chinese treatment. Martial art and Peking opera gesture were heavily used and blended seamlessly. Love story between opposite sex were pushed to the back, denying the piece the typical pas de deux found in Western ballet.

The Shanghai Ballet Company was in autopilot. In some instances, I feel that they can do significantly better. For some reason, if the choreography requires two grand jete, the second tends to suffer and I sincerely believe that it was plainly out of laziness rather than skill. Can I blame them? Maybe not; with the kind of audience Guangzhou has, it was very difficult to take the performance seriously. All I know was that the Shanghai Ballet Company was performing. There was no program telling me who were in the Company and who was performing which role.

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REVIEW: Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid

Guangzhou Opera House (Guangzhou), Sunday June 19

The opera house itself was enough reason for me to explore the arts and culture in Guangzhou… how untrue. The Guangzhou Opera House, designed by the famous Zaha Hadid was a HUGE disappointment. Just like the Guangdong Museum by the Rocco Design Architect, the design itself was not too bad. What really killed it was the quality of the materials and workmanship. The worst part of the architecture was the fact that the triangular granite-like tiles that cover the whole building were not laid seamlessly. For some reason, they were very uneven. The gaps between each tile were uneven and some were more raised than the others. In some parts, trapezoidal tiles were used to fix gaps.

The inside of the building fared better. The architectural language was clearer in the inside and more so inside the theatre. Fluidity and seamlessness were apparent but not necessarily practical. Balcony at the lobby section of the theatre has very deep “balustrade” that one has difficulty looking over them. Without exception, the material and workmanship were less than second rate.

I visited the opera house in the morning (to pick up my tickets) and in the evening (to watch White Haired Girl ballet); and have to say that in the evening, the building looked WAY better. The lighting from the inside and the reflection of the building on the water were very flattering. As I was coming out of the theatre, there was a monitor showing upcoming shows. One of them was some kind of Disney extravaganza show with Buzz Lightyear dancing the grind.

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REVIEW: Guanxi at the Guangdong Museum of Art (Guangzhou)

Guangdong Museum of Art, Sunday June 19

After going to the Guangdong Musuem, the Guangdong Museum of Art seems to be the total opposite. It is housed under a very ordinary looking building, it looked its age, but the content was serious and very well-curated... of course, I am referring to People's Republic of China standard.

The exhibit was entitled GUANXI. Curated by Jiang Jiehong, it was an attempt to "explore the possible transcendence of the binary relationships on contemporary visual culture and artistic representation, as well as those between thinking and existence, subjectivity and objectivity, individual and society in western philosophy, or heaven and human, concept and entity, being and not-being, logos and utensils in Chinese philosophy".

That might sound quite encompassing and unfocused, but that was exactly what the exhibit set out to achieve, that is to have the invited artists explore these two characters and the results themselves are meant to be studied. The invited artists were: Jiang Zhi, Qiu Zhijie, Shao Yinong, Shi Jinsong, Shi Qing, Xiang Jing, Xiao Yu, Yang Xinguang, Yang Zhenzhong, Zhang Dali, Zhang Enli, Zhuang Hui & Dan'ér. The concept, however, is actually not very new, but the results were quite insightful.

It was the last day of the exhibit and in Guangzhou, that means they can start disassembling some of the exhibit, which is really quite annoying. There were about four rooms/artist's work that was no longer there.

Sculptor Xiang Jing's work was one of my favorite. Just like any good art (at least in my own standard), hers was layered with meanings yet immediately relevant to the viewer or the subject/message. Just like the sculpture below, it is not very difficult to understand Guanxi of male + female = baby; but the headlessness of the subjects and the fact that only the female + baby are naked make one thinks of words like "mindless" and "inequity".

Qiu Zhijie, famous for his works with several mediums including photography and video, calligraphy, interactive art and performances came up with an eco-inspired exhibit (below). The most assertive visual point of his work was a series of books made of wood that almost question the struggle between the gain of discovery in relation or at the expense of the environment.

Avant-garde artist Xiao Yu's chess boards (below) were a far cry from his controversial fetus-bird artwork (grafted head of a human fetus onto the body of a bird), but the simplicity of the melting of the chess pieces onto the board and merging didn't sacrifice the innate power of the message and relevance of Guangxi.

Overall, the exhibition was a compelling study of GUANXI by some of the best artists in China today.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

REVIEW: Guangdong Museum (Guangzhou) designed by Rocco Design Architects

Guangdong Museum (Guangzhou), Sunday June 19

I have been going to Guangzhou for the longest time, but never really found the time to see the city. There was no impetus for me to do so until the much talked about beautification of Guangzhou for the 2010 Asian Games. So, a week ago, I deliberately went to Guangzhou to absorb some art and culture there. My first stop was the Guangdong Museum designed by the Rocco Design Architects. Irrelevant to the design but more to the administration of the museum, it was managed to be one of the most uninviting museums I have ever been to.

To get into the museum, one has to line up at the side of the garden (not the building) and wait as they only allow certain number of visitors every certain time interval (both of which depend on the whims of the loud security guards) . Once you are about to give up under the heat, they let you into the garden. Once in the garden, you should walk to the side of the building to line up for a free ticket. Note, there were very few people and one has to walk all the way to the back of the side of the building so that one can just walk back to the front of the building. Once inside, the first thing that I noticed was there were very few people and the place looked old as if it has been there for more than 10 years (when in fact, it was just a year old). It was poorly signed and the information counter was most uninviting. Non-working light fixtures, filthy glass displays (inside and out), water puddles on the floor and grimy windows were just the few things that made me wonder why the government even bother to have this museum. After all, these were basics.

Worn -out floor

The content was not impressive either. While exhibition flows were fluid and easy to navigate, they were not exactly made to be interesting. The one thing that came close to interesting was the things related to Guangdong, in particular the part about the culture and history. But then again, it could be just because the topic was more interesting to me than the stuffed dolphins and the whale skeletons. It was a mish mash of incoherent thing inside.

Water seepage inside the building

Architecture-wise, the lay-out was good, but then it is too big for what it houses. Above all, its biggest mistake is the color scheme: black and red. It made the whole place very dark, conforming to the dreaded stereotype of museum looking like mausoleum! I also can't help but notice that a lot of the materials sued were cheap looking and the finishes were just plain sad.

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REVIEW: Joyce Yang with HKPO

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday June 18

June 18 saw the 1st of three installments of HKPO's Tchaikovsky Festival. For the first installment, the orchestra offered the crowd pleasing Piano Concerto No. 1 and the potent Symphony No. 4.

Joyce Yang, the soloist for the concerto, came to international attention when she took the silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Competition and became the youngest prizewinner in the competition’s history. As the youngest contestant, Ms. Yang swept two additional awards as an all-around winner, receiving the Steven De Groote Memorial Award for Best Performance of Chamber Music with the Takàcs Quartet; and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for Best Performance of a New Work. In 2010, she received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant

Below is the link to my review in the TIME-OUT magazine of her performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Edo de Waart:


Posted in Time-Out Hong Kong on June 20 2011

Joyce Yang Performs with the HKPO

For the first installment of HKPO’s Tchaikovsky Festival, the orchestra offered the crowd pleasing Piano Concerto No. 1 and the potent Symphony No. 4. Joyce Yang, the soloist for the concerto, came to international attention when she took the silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Competition and became the youngest prizewinner in the competition’s history. In 2010, she received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Yang’s technical ability was impressive. In the outer movements, the chords and octaves were handled with weight and depth of tone; and in the slow movement, the finger-work was dazzling. At a technical level, Yang's playing will not ruffle any Tchaikovsky purist's feathers.
However, it takes more than these qualities to make this heavily-played concerto fly. What was lacking was a distinctive interpretation of the piece, spontaneous inflections and calculated surprises that subtly colour without breaking the musical thread. The HKPO on the other hand, led by maestro Edo de Waart, played in equal partnership with Yang and unabashedly pushed the orchestra to the full-blooded boundary of the romantic manner to good effect.

After the intermission, de Waart once again displayed his command for musical narrative in Symphony No. 4. Throughout the first movement, the tension held beautifully, an important feat with one of Tchaikovsky’s longest symphonic movements; the slow movement opened simply and almost proceeded on autopilot; the Scherzo made the most of the balalaika pizzicati with subtle graduation and perceptive use of colors; and the finale was unavoidably exciting. Tchaikovsky’s splendid string writing and resonant brass scoring is such that, when played well, the effect truly excites and the end culminates with visceral power as it did here. It was a fine performance.
Tchaikovsky Festival: Joyce Yang’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1
17 & 18 June 2011, Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4

Pianist: Joyce Yang
Conductor: Edo de Waart

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Friday, June 3, 2011

REVIEW: Pekka Kuusisto with HKPO

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Saturday May 28

I was late. With my auto-pilot mode on, I traveled from Hong Kong to Kowloon just to notice that the usual HKPO Saturday crowd seems to be less, younger and more Chinese. Well, it was not the HKPO crowd, instead it was the HKCO (Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra) crowd. Oh well, I took the MTR and went to the Hong Kong City Hall to catch the last minute of beautifully played Sibelius' Ratastava.

For the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5, Pekka Kuusisto took the center stage to direct and play the solo part. In general, it was good. Kuusisto gave a hearty rather than a subtle account of the Turkish concerto. The orchestra, on the other hand accompanied buoyantly. On the other hand, the Mozart Divertimento in D K136 was uninspired.

The Sibelius Suite for Violin and String Orchestra Op.117 was a welcome break from the previous two Mozart. The first movement was played with an old fashion zest, while the second movement was a bit too lingering. The lively third movement was executed in brilliant breakneck speed; though there were some moments of smudges.

Haydn Symphony No. 88 was a mixed bag. It was tediously exciting most of the time, but the fourth movement had some of the best Haydn playing I've ever heard from HKPO, providing the perfect ending to an evening that was as entertaining as I imagine a Justin Bieber concert can be. I didn't wait for an encore as my drink is waiting for me in M Bar.

I Love Mozart!
27 & 28-5-2011
Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong City Hall
Concert Hall

SIBELIUS - Rakastava
MOZART - Violin Concerto No. 5 Turkish
MOZART - Divertimento in D, K136
SIBELIUS - Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, Op. 117
HAYDN - Symphony No. 88

Pekka Kuusisto - director / violin

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

REVIEW: Perry’s Symphonie Fantastique with HKPO

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday May 21

I will continue to keep this short. As I endeavor to review every show I have seen, it is most unfortunate that the spare time I have for writing is currently disproportionate to the performances. In fact, I am currently avoiding any more performances!

This concert seemed quite promising. The programme was varied but has a common fantastical-exotic theme to them. Fung Lam's Unlocking was 'interesting'; and there's no asteism involved here. While it didn't seem to have a clear narrative, it did impart a sense of journey to the unknown and resolved beautifully with a sense of attainment.

Ravel's Sheherazade, sang by the Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, got my attention the most. Not only because Sheherazade is one of my favorite song-cycles, Daniela Mack's creamy dark timbre and clear articulation infused the cycle a languid and sensual femininity. Perry So also provided an ample support with masterly colors. The balance between the voice and orchestra was achieved at the expense of neither.

Now to Perry's Symphonie Fantastique... for some reason, I find the whole piece brash, affected and overwrought. Mind you, the audience loved it. Objectively, I do see that it fitted Berlioz's call for intensity and luminosity, but subjectively, I had difficulty connecting to the playing as I felt I was being forced to feel it rather than actually lured to feeling something.


Perry’s Symphonie Fantastique
20 & 21-5-2011
Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

FUNG LAM - Unlocking (Asian Première)
RAVEL - Shéhérazade
(Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano)
BERLIOZ - Symphonie Fantastique

Perry So - conductor

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REVIEW: Sol Gabetta with HKPO

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday May 14

I am trying to catch up with my writing; thus I have to be short. In any case, I can't really write much about this concert and I think I shouldn't. Even though I have written notes in my programme, a review after almost three weeks is hardly reliable; and also I was dead tired and jet-lagged.

The highlight of this concert was no other than Sol Gabetta's Dvorak. In fact, without referring back to the programme, I can't even remember what it was paired with. The Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 was decent. The first movement, with its references to Rossini's Guillaume Tell overture and some of Wagner's music, was taken a tad too seriously by maestro Dmitri Jurowski and I wished that it was a bit more gentle so that it can pave more contrast to the darkly sombre second movement.

In Dvorak's Cello Concerto, Gabetta's playing was first and foremost about the tone. Her's was rich, full and beautiful. In addition, her sympathy of interpretation and good command of the technical difficulties was breathtaking. What made her performance even more tremendous was the fact that the orchestra was playing WITH her. There was at no point I felt that the orchestra and the soloist was playing in two different levels. Jurowski took a lot of care to ensure that even in tutti, the orchestra was scaled in proportion to the soloist. That was good concerto accompanying.

Dvorák’s Cello Concerto
13 & 14-5-2011
Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

DVORÁK - Cello Concerto
(Sol Gabetta - cello)
SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony No. 15

Dmitri Jurowski - conductor

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