Wednesday, November 23, 2011

REVIEW: Brooklyn Rider

Academy of Performing Arts Amphitheatre, Monday November 21

By reputation, I know I am in for an unusual performance; but that was not enough to prepare me for Monday night.

The concert, part of the Recital Series of Premiere Performances of Hong Kong, was fairly well-attended, but it started late as Eric Jacobsen (cellist) got the time wrong and over-slept. Luckily, the group was staying at the nearby Grand Hyatt Hotel.

The Brooklyn Rider is about identity rather than versatility. They are not about what the music has to say about the players, but rather what the players have to say about the music. While their programme were quite varied, it was with the same personality and style each piece was played. In contrast, this reminds me of the review I wrote about British cellist Steven Isserlis (click here). In an interview, he mentioned that, “You get musicians who are ‘character actors’, who change with each work they play; and then you get the stars, who are always recognisable no matter what character they play… I would like to be a character actor…” I don't have a particular preference; but instead, the result just has to make sense.

With Brooklyn Rider, their Glass, Jacobsen and Zorn made sense and were very effective; while their Mozart and Beethoven don't and were very disturbing.

To see my TIME-OUT HONG KONG review of their concert, click here.

Separately, I had the opportunity to buy Brooklyn Rider's recording of Philip Glass' music; and was able to compare it with Kronos Quartet's that is in my library. Amongst those same string quartets that are featured in both recordings, I would say that the Brooklyn Rider's has bit more force and urgent intensity to them; while Kronos Quartet delivers a cleaner shimmering sound and more meditative in feel. I am glad that I have both, but if I am forced to recommend one... hmmm... I will go with Brooklyn Rider's.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

REVIEW: Desh with Akram Khan

Kwai Tsing Theatre, Friday November 18

While the name Akram Khan is a familiar one, this was my first time to see him perform live... and this performance has made me wonder why I waited this long especially when I had opportunities to see him before in Hong Kong?!?

I will go straight to the point, the show was absolutely stunning! Desh, Akram Khan’s first full length solo work made its Asia Premiere last Friday as the closing programme of the biennial World Cultures Festival. The 80-minute piece (with no intermission) was breathtaking, magical, poignant, touching and funny enough, spiritual. Yes, spiritual, not of the ecclesiastical type, but rather the type that is sacred and touches one’s spirit.

In Khan’s word, Desh is about “confrontation, with one’s identity, with one’s upbringing, with one’s country, with one’s father and most importantly, with oneself…” And indeed it was. The work started with Khan pounding and hammering a metal mount rhythmically, almost like summoning memories, pleading forgiveness and releasing anger. From there, Khan traveled through time and space, be it through the busy and chaotic streets of Bangladesh represented by projected shifting bars; or through the heavy rain made of panels of wide ribbons stretching from the top down to the floor.

The work was more than just the dance itself; it was the whole theatricality that made the work. Tim Yip’s (Yip won the Oscar for Best Art Direction for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001) visual design played a huge and vital part in orchestrating the narrative of the piece. Jocelyn Pook’s music was a curious mixture of sample sounds, chants and songs… most of the time effective, while sometime manipulatively sentimental. Michael Hulls’ lighting design was brilliantly judged and managed. In fact, the designs around the piece was so impeccable that the piece can’t withstand a polished performance from Khan, or it is endangered of looking pretty.

But Akram Khan was anything but pretty. His performance was so intense that one can only believe that it came from somewhere deep within him as his movement radiated with so much passion. Don’t get me wrong; the work was choreographed and not some spontaneous burst of emotive dance movements. It was a piece of fine and exquisite choreography executed with awe-inspiring honesty and artistry.

Some of my personal favorites are when Khan drew eyes and mouth on the top of his bald head and created movements that made the face slip and slide across his arms. The face, seemingly his father’s, then slowly faded as his sweat washed it off like years of turmoil and hardwork washing away ones years. There was also the part where Khan interacted with his “niece” and while he was tying her shoelace, the lace transformed into a rope with the use of projected animation. What came after the rope was a mysterious landscape with crocodile, bees, elephant and snake. Lastly, was what came after the performance, which was the meet-the-artist session facilitated by none other than Willy Tsao (Founder and Artistic Director of City Contemporary Dance Company). It was most interesting to hear Khan tell the story of how he met serendipitously his father’s childhood friend in a cab in Sydney.


DESH - Akram Khan
15/9 World première in Leicester, UK
18/11 Asia première in Hong Kong
Co-produced by:
MC2: Grenoble (France) Sadler's Wells London (UK) Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg) Curve, Leicester (UK) Concertgebouw Brugge (Belgium)

18 - 19.11 (Fri - Sat) 8pm
Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium
■ $360 ■ $280 ■ $200 ■ $130

Artistic Direction, Choreography and Performance: Akram Khan
Visual Design: Tim Yip (Oscar Winner)
Music Composition: Jocelyn Pook (Olivier Award Winner)
Lighting Design: Michael Hulls (Sadler's Wells Associate Artist)
Devised by: Karthika Nair, Akram Khan
Dramaturge: Ruth Little
Producer: Farooq Chaudhry

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

REVIEW: Mamma Mia! - Putonghua version 妈妈咪呀! 中文版 (Guangzhou)

Guangzhou Opera House, Wednesday November 16

Mamma Mia! has to be one of the better jukebox musical so far. I do have to admit that when it opened in 1999 and even with it's good reviews, I was not particularly keen on seeing it. In 2001, when I have pretty much seen all the worthy musicals in West End, I decided to see Mamma Mia! I then found out that it was not easy to find a ticket as it was one of the hottest show in town. Finally, I was able to get one and surprisingly, I enjoyed it immensely.

Aside from the all too familiar songs of ABBA, the musical actually packs an interesting story. Needless to say, part of the fun was seeing when and how the songs are going to appear. I caught myself laughing out loud at one of the most dramatic moment when the character Sam confronted Donna; and Donna said, "I don't wanna talk!" and proceeded to sing the subsequent lyrics of the song "The Winner Takes it All"... it sounded as if the song was written for that moment!

Years later, after seeing the musical again in Hong Kong in 2004 and the movie in 2008, I was most intrigue to know that it will be playing in China in Putonghua. My immediate concern was the translation and the casting. Well, I had it wrong, it was the technical side of the production and the audience that were the problem.

Despite the regular warning about mobile phones ringing, there were endless ringing phones. The audience was also in competition with the actors in their loud conversations, worst of all was that they were the couldn't-care-less, what-are-you-looking-at-type of audience that believe that it was their right to talk during the performance. Technically, the sound design was karaoke in style. Every time somebody starts singing, the reverb and echo was on high gear and they made sure that the back-up singers were louder than the lead.

The "translation" was not bad at all, at least based on what I can hear and decipher. They didn't take the route to go literal, instead, it was almost as if they have written a whole new set of lyrics to fit the music and the story, while keeping the essence of the English lyrics. They were fluid and doesn't sound like translations. Personally, that suits me... The English lyrics were never Pulitzer Prize quality anyway.

The talents on the other hand were way better than I anticipated. The younger generation did a great job.张芳瑜 as Sophie and 于晓璘 as Sky had all the vibes and feel of their generation, which is not different from their western counterparts. Both of them and the ensemble of their age did make me think that musical theatre in China looks indeed quite promising.

The older generation was not bad either. It was although some of those small slip ups e.g. when Rosie was trying to be funny, she went into this Chinese folk dance steps, or when Donna was belting her "The Winner Takes it All", she went into this Chinese opera hand chop gesture... those small mannerisms that broke the little fantasy. These however, I would imagine, would escape the typical Chinese audience. 影子 as Donna was a delight to see and can belt out a good performance as long as the song doesn't need too many low notes. 贾邱 as Bill and 傅震华 as Harry were perfect for the roles, their comedic timing were fabulous.

Some changes made that I don't particularly favor were the likes of Bill giving the young couple "laisee" (red packet) or changing the lyrics in "Money, Money, Money" from "Las Vegas" to "Macau"... They were unnecessary and actually took away more than it contributed.


Mamma Mia! - Putonghua version 妈妈咪呀! 中文版
Guangzhou Opera House
October 28 to November 24 2011

Cast includes:
影子 Ying Zi: 唐娜 Donna
张璐 Zhang Lu: 谭雅 Tanya
陈沁 Chen Qin: 罗茜 Rosie
张芳瑜 Zhang Fangyu: 苏菲 Sophie
于晓璘 Yu Xiaolin: Sky
曾慧诚 Ceng Huicheng: 山姆-卡尔麦克 Sam Carmichael
贾邱 Jia Qiu: 比尔-奥斯丁 Bill Austin
傅震华 Fu Zhenhua: 哈里-布莱特 Harry Bright

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

REVIEW: Der Freischutz (Macao)

Macao Cultural Centre Grand Auditorium, Wednesday November 2

The 25th Macao International Music Festival closed with a customized production of von Weber’s Der Freischutz… and what a beautiful one. This is my third program I have seen in the 25th MIMF and if they were any indications, I will say that the MIMF is definitely back in shape and form. Congratulations!

I was there for the first of three performances and it shows. It was almost like a dressed rehearsal BUT nevertheless, the class and quality was undeniably there. Almost every aspect of the performance started shaky, the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre Chorus was not focused and the Macao Orchestra led by Lu Jia was dragging a bit. It didn’t take long though before the performance tightened up and brought forth a clear and concise narrative.

This production has a fairly even cast. Clemens Bieber as the desperate gamekeeper Max sang with firm, bright and lyrical tone. Melanie Diener as Agathe sang with gorgeous fluidity; though I wished that her higher registers were a little bit brighter. Erica Miller was an ideal Annchen vocally and dramatically. Kurt Rydl (whom I saw in Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Shanghai as Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen) was effectively menacing and fraught. The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre Chorus was very committed and a pleasure to watch and listen to.

The star of the opera however, was the production directed by Dieter Kaegi and set and costume design by William Orlandi. The simple and elegant set and costume were effective in conveying time and space yet not overpowering. While the use of modular simple geometric forms to create different configurations communicating different places is quite common, Orlandi’s set was always consistent in feel and texture… in particular, the huge deer head trophies were visually powerful and relevant. If there is one thing that I think was overdone was Thomas Mathys’Samiel. His presence coming in and out constantly was annoying rather than threatening… almost like a pesty little kid in Halloween costume. I do have to admit though that I like how Samiel, after being defeated in the end, managed to steal the statue of Saint Mary.

Der Freischütz
Opera in 3 Acts by Carl Maria von Weber
Composer: Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Libretto: Friedrich Kind

2, 4, 5/11 (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday)8:00pm
Macao Cultural Centre Grand Auditorium
Ticket:MOP 500, 400, 300, 200

Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Dieter Kaegi
Rehearsal Pianist: Lorne Richstone
Assistant Director: Gerald Stollwitzer
Set and Costume Designer: William Orlandi
Lighting Designer: Roberto Venturi

Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre Chorus
Macao Orchestra

Ottokar, Duke of Bohemia: Marcin Bronikowski, Baritone
Kuno, head gamekeeper: Matthew Burns, Bass
Agathe, the daughter of Kuno: Melanie Diener, Soprano
Ännchen, a young cousin of Agathe: Erica Miller, Soprano
Caspar, a gamekeeper: Kurt Rydl, Bass
Max, a gamekeeper: Clemens Bieber, Tenor
A hermit: Julien Robbins, Bass
Kilian, a wealthy peasant: Karl-Michael Ebner, Tenor
Samiel, the ‘Black Huntsman’: Thomas Mathys, Actor

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: Anne Sofie von Otter

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Tuesday October 25

I feel like it is already the Hong Kong Arts Festival season already. This was my 11th performing arts event in October. In fact, even with the Arts Festival, I only plan to go to ten events! But then, how can one not find time and energy to go to the recital of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter? I saw her debut in Hong Kong back in December 8 2008. It was a Christmas-themed concert; and together with her pianist partner Bengt Forsberg and her Swedish band, they performed traditional and Scandinavian Christmas songs… not exactly the repertoire that I was dreaming of, but hey, it was a von Otter recital… This time around, however, the programme was just right… no, it was ideal!

Von Otter has mastered a wide range of repertoire in her career; and in this recital, she traversed through different languages and styles with effortless fluency. It was not difficult to appreciate the Grieg and Sibelius songs as they were quite accessible and von Otter showed great affinity and ease with them. But it was the Schubert songs that benefited from the “warm-up” of the first two sets. In Schubert’s, von Otter showed restraints with graceful lyrical beauty yet invest in it weariness and quiet despair. She ended the first part with Liszt songs, in celebration of Liszt’s 200 birth anniversary.

In contrast with Liszt songs (ending with the birth), the second part started with Mahler songs, in memorial of Mahler’s 100 death anniversary. Interestingly, two of the Mahler songs were just performed by Matthias Goerne with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 16 days ago; and what a difference! While both were excellent, the underlying sentiments were quite different. Take Das irdische Leben (Early Life), Goerne with the orchestra took a more desperate account of the child’s hunger and the hopelessness of the situation, while von Otter with the piano was heartbreakingly despair almost like a mother recounting what happened to herself.

The Korngold songs do point out the fact that they were under-appreciated. These songs, especially the Shakespeare ones, demonstrated Korngold’s ability to craft tight melody lines that enhances the text. I do have to admit that I totally enjoyed the Weill songs. There is no substitute to language affinity, not von Otter’s but my.

Vocal Recital by Anne Sofie von Otter
Mezzo-Soprano: Anne Sofie von Otter
Piano: Bengt Forsberg

 Med en vandlilje
 Våren
 Lauf der Welt
 Till kvällen
 Les trois soeurs aveugles
 Var det en dröm
 Romance in A, Op. 24, No. 2 (1894)(Piano Solo)
 Die Forelle
 Du bist die Ruh
 Gretchen am Spinnrade
 Es muss ein wunderbares sein
 Es war ein König in Thule
 Die drei Zigeuner
 Es sungen drei Engel
 Das irdische Leben
 Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
 Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen
 Three songs of Shakespeare, Op. 29
 Come away, Death
 Mistress mine
 Adieu good man devil
 Glückwunsch (Dehmel), Op. 38, No. 1
 One Life to live
 Speak Low
 I´m a Stranger here myself

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