Tuesday, February 28, 2012

REVIEW: Handel’s Messiah by The Sixteen

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday February 25

I know it is silly, but the first thing I did was to count… The Sixteen was comprised of 18 choir members, 23-piece orchestra, 4 soloists and 1 conductor, appropriately baroque and un-Victorian (when choir of thousands and big orchestra were used to please the crowd). For the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival, The Sixteen presented two concerts, this and another one in previous night (programme included: Handel’s Let thy hand be strengthened, Silete Venti, Nisi Dominus and Dixit Dominus).



Overall, the performance was lighter and more relaxed than what I expected from a period performance. Conductor Harry Christophers kept regular and firm rhythms that was confident but not over-dramatic. The best part of the evening was the chorus. They gave an impassioned performance that was balanced, precise and most importantly clear. When with the orchestra, the balance was even more impressive, musical lines were finely separated and dynamics were sensitively managed.

Amongst the soloists, I am familiar with countertenor Robin Blaze for his recordings and his performance last year (with Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan); and tenor James Gilchrist for his recordings. Robin Blaze sounded surprisingly strained in part 1 but was fine after the interval. James Gilchrist, on the other hand, offered a performance of beautifully controlled modulations and colourful phrasings. Soprano Gillian Keith produced a sweet gorgeous tone to go with a heartfelt reading, though I find her vibrato a bit too fast for my taste. The best performance though came from bass-baritone Matthew Brook with his beautiful even tone, remarkable technique and most of all unbeatable diction.

As for standing during “Hallelujah”, I am proud to report that almost everybody did. I, for one am for “standing”. Of course, there is no musical or liturgical reason for it. Even the story of how King George II started it was dubious… BUT traditions are traditions. Some members of the audience were glad to show off their “cultural knowhow” and some where happy to cluelessly follow. As for me, I was just glad to get a chance to stretch my legs!

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Handel
Messiah HWV 56

The Sixteen
Conductor: Harry Christophers
Soprano: Gillian Keith
Countertenor: Robin Blaze
Tenor: James Gilchrist
Bass-Baritone: Matthew Brook

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Monday, February 27, 2012

REVIEW: Cosi Fan Tutte by the Bavarian State Opera

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Thursday February 23

The fact that this was not some avant-garde production is something to be thankful about. On the other hand, there’s really not much to rave about this production by Dieter Dorn; and with set and costumes by Jurgen Rose. It was simple and elegant enough though to evoke context yet without overpowering the stage and the artists.


Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte was a rather boring choice for the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival, especially when compared to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde last year. Having said that, I was looking forward to seeing this opera for Miah Perrson as Fiordiligi and Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso. I have seen Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso twice before in the same Jonathan Miller production (for Royal Opera House) in two different theatres (Shaftesbury Theatre – when ROH was being renovated in 1998 and ROH in 2007) nine years apart; and he never cease to amaze me what an incredible singer-actor he is… always in character and always in-tuned with what was happening on stage and with other performers. As for Miah Perrson, I have never seen her performed live before, but I am most familiar with her beautifully recorded Mozart album, “Un moto di gioia”. In this performance, Persson’s tone was pure and even; and her voice soars beautifully over the orchestra.

What made the evening a surprisingly superlative one however, was the rest of the cast. Tara Erraught, an Ellen Page look-alike, was an adorable and very convincing Dorabella. Laura Tatulescu’s Despina was irreverently charming with a gorgeous timbre. Levente Molnar made a confident Gugliemo with a rich baritone voice to match; while Alexey Kudrya was a dashing yet sensitive Ferrando. The orchestra, led by Mark Wigglesworth (who did a fabulous job in Hong Kong last October 2011), was superb and remarkably balanced. If there is one quibble though, it is that the singers and the orchestra had moments that they were not “together”. Unfortunately. this is something a friend of mine also noticed even two nights after.

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Cosi Fan Tutte
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte

Creative Team:
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth
Production: Dieter Dorn
Set and Costumes: Jürgen Rose
Lighting: Max Keller
Chorus: Sören Eckhoff
Orchestra: Bayerisches Staatsorchester (Bavarian State Orchestra)
Chorus: Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera)

Cast includes:
Fiordiligi: Miah Persson
Dorabella: Tara Erraught
Ferrando: Alexey Kudrya
Guglielmo: Levente Molnár
Despina: Laura Tatulescu
Don Alfonso: Thomas Allen

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

REVIEW: Karita Mattila in Recital


Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Thursday February 16

So this is a first in my blog, I have a guest reviewer and I do hope that it is not my last one! I was not able to go to the recital because work requires me to.... work... Mr. Dominic Sargent was kind enough to not only buy my ticket, but also provide a review :-)

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Aphrodite Calling

If only that mobile phone had gone off in sympathy with the music, with its drama, its volume, reverberating or resonating to those words: ’Adonis...Adonis!’ Perhaps Aphrodite was on the other end of the line. For at the climax of Strauss’ terrifying setting of Heine’s poem, the Frühlingsfeier, Karita Mattila belted, no, yelled, no, there’s no word to describe that horrifying, blood-curdling shriek, the sound a throat might make before tearing itself from its neck to fall writhing on the ground - ‘Adonis... Adonis.’

But the fact is that this was from beginning to end an extraordinary concert, even if it was given to the noisiest, rudest, most inattentive audience I have sat amongst. Mattila was bigger and louder than the phone, and that goes not just for her voice. She looked spectacular; blond hair blown upwards and back in a diva-coiff above her head, her glance darting from balcony to stalls to organ loft, as she swept onto the stage in a silver dress with a grey stole for Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder and a set of four well-known Brahms songs, changing in the intermission into a black dress with a band of glittering sequins curling around her elegant figure. Svelt, even elfin, she looked around her like a little girl - but a little girl able to reach the stars with her voice.

The only false note - or notes - were struck by the pianist, Ville Matvejeff, in a romantic rendering of Brahms’ Meine Liebe ist grün, indulging in ‘musical’ rubato, the sort of thing that says ‘talent’ rather than ‘insight’. Brahms’ word-painting erased, the bees in the lilac bush, quick syncopated thirds in the middle of the texture, buzzed off to find their nectar elsewhere. There was a slight teeter, too, in the deceptively tricky climax of ‘Von ewiger Liebe’, the unravelling of the lover’s despair in the gently rocking lullaby of his beloved’s reassurance.

But Matvejeff played Debussy and Strauss marvellously. Strauss wrote extremely difficult piano parts for these big dramatic songs, and they do not always ‘speak’. But with a supreme artist like Mattila, who sports a big sound, there were never any balance problems. On the contrary, the piano was sometimes overwhelmed, which is at it should be. Mattila needs no protection from Messrs Steinway and Son.

Which led me to me consider the many individuals who contribute to a pinnacle of an evening like this: poet, composer, piano-builder, technician, pianist and singer, teacher, patron, dressmaker and so on, and, of course, architect, builder, festival manager and promoter. Perhaps a crowd as noisy and inattentive as our Hong Kong audience might be reminded of this from time to time.

Music is not an international language. It does not have words, syntax, grammar, or specific meanings, yet nobody could have mistaken the anguish in the roar - on the edge of vocal destruction - that Mattila let out before falling to her knees in genuine despair at the end of that Strauss setting, the sequined bands on her dress coiling around her like a snake. Heine’s well-behaved rhymes and gentle rhythms disguise a tumultuous horde of maenads coursing across blood-stained hills. Strauss’ song goes for the literal interpretation. But you won’t often hear a singer at the height of her powers sacrifice, for a moment at least, everything to make her point. I don’t expect to hear it again soon. In fact I don’t hope to, for it is only the most skillful technician who can surface from such drama unscathed.

In her encore, a song of dedication and love, Zueignung, Mattila had audibly to slim down her voice, and steer her vowels back to the straight and narrow. That, too, was unforgettable.

Dominic Sargent the bracadabra

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Karita Mattila in Recital
with pianist Ville Matvejeff

16 February 2012 8pm
Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Alban Berg
7 Frühe Lieder:
Nacht, Schilflied, Die Nachtigall, Traumgekrönt, Im Zimmer, Liebesode, Sommertage


Johannes Brahms
Meine Liebe ist grün, op 63 no 5
Wiegenlied op 49 no 4
Von ewiger Liebe op 43 no 1
Vergebliches Ständchen op 84 no4


Intermission

Claude Debussy
Harmonie du soir
Le jet d’eau
Recueillement
Richard Strauss
Der Stern op 69 no 1
Wiegenlied op 41 no 1
Allerseelen op 10 no 8
Frühlingsfeier op 56 no 5


Encore: Richard Strauss Zueignung op 10 no 1

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

REVIEW: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Chung Myun-whun

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Tuesday February 14

Talk about PRESSURE! The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was ranked the world’s greatest orchestra back in 2008 by the Gramophone Magazine and was promoted as is by the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival. Critics, however, doesn’t seem to agree. Sam Olluver of the South China Morning Post concluded, “In the context of a world-class orchestra commanding steep ticket prices, this performance struggled to rate a twinkle, let alone a few stars”. OUCH! It was a damning review and too bad that I was not there to witness it. The bigger share of the blame was placed on conductor Chung Myung-whun for not having what it takes to bring out the best of this programme of nineteenth-century Austro-German music (Weber’s Die Freischutz overture, Schubert’s Unfinished and Brahms’No. 2).


I, on the other hand saw the “other” performance consisted of twentieth-century Hungarian music (Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra) sandwiching nineteenth-century German music (Mendelssohn’s violin concerto). Based on that evening’s performance, I can’t say that the Royal Concertgebouw is the world’s greatest. In fact, a musician friend of mine quipped, “well, the HKPO is not very far from that”. Having said that and even considering the price, I think the performance was not THAT bad, it was just not stunning.

Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta was well-balanced with Chung bringing out a persuasive performance from the orchestra with sensuous and sensitive playing from the principals of the wind section. Jacques Meertens on the clarinet was particularly effective, alluringly introducing the recurring main dance theme. If there is any indication of what actually happened the night before, it was to be found in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Despite a most competent performance from soloist Janine Jansen, the famous and regularly performed concerto didn’t really take flight. The ever-central timpani; and cello and bass lines that underpin the harmony were never seemed to be quite there with the solo line. It was a “respectable” performance but just not a compelling one.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was the highlight of the evening; and if there is any hint of Concertgebouw being the world’s greatest, it is to be found in this piece. It is also in this piece that the presence of Chung was most felt. The interpretation was not without imagination. The progression from the dark and gloomy to the triumphant feel good mood was handled with well-judged dramatic manipulation that showed off the orchestra’s layered sound to glorious effect. There was nothing straight-forward about this performance. Chung was able to make sure that each melody, no matter how covered, achieved clarity; and most importantly, the finale ended with a big sweeping action to incite a rapturous applause.

No. 1? Not really. But definitely in the top 10.
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Myung-whun Chung and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Feb. 14 2012
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall


Zoltán Kodály:Dances of Galánta
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64
Allegro molto appassionato
Andante
Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace
Violin, Janine Jansen
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchesta
Introduzione: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace
Giuoco delle coppie: Allegro scherzando
Elegia: Andante non troppo
Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto
Finale: Pesante – Presto

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

REVIEW: Songs of the Beloved by Grace Nono

Asia Society Hong Kong Center Miller Theatre, Sunday February 12

There is something about listening to “folk songs” that connects one to humanity whether it is in a language one knows or not. There’s a certain sincerity and truthfulness about the sound of the words in the music that seems to reveal the deep sentiments of the culture they represent.


As part of the inauguration of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s grand opening, it has invited the Filipino artist Grace Nono to perform at the Miller Theatre (Former Magazine B) of the Center. The Miller Theatre is a converted theatre with 100+ seats that is far more suitable for lectures than performing arts. The performance, meanwhile, was also broadcasted to another hall of the Center, the Pavilion, for what Ronnie Chan, chairman of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center gracefully presented as important members of the society, the “domestic helpers”.

While marred with unbelievable technical problems, Grace Nono and her artist friends persevered to provide a beautiful and soulful performance. Most songs, if not all, were based on songs handed down by elders of the different ethnic groups in the Philippines. Through primary research and experience, Grace infused them with a contemporary context and provided a performance that was rooted on the ancestral values of the different ethnic culture yet sounded at the same time contemporary. Nono’s natural “mezzo” voice maneuvered through the chants and songs with no less skill of a pop and soul diva; except that hers was not only infused with honesty but also a certain intensity that is almost spiritual.


Together with Bob Aves on the “Filipino” guitar and Rodelio “Waway” Saway, Sr. and Alex Tumapang, they presented a programme that was a not unlike an audio travelogue of the Philippines. Songs were fluid and rhythms were freer with the songs from the South, almost reflecting the relationship of the people with the land and its proximity to the sea. Slowly, the songs turned to the North and rhythms were more pronounced. Words and actions bounced accordingly to the rhythms like it was empowered by the mountains surrounding them. Equally amazing was the discussion after the show moderated by Rachel Cooper, Director of the Cultural Programs & Performing Arts Asia Society.

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Songs

O D'Wata Holi Kemundung (Creator, look upon us)
Panangpit (Invocation)
Uyaging (Manobo epic, historical chant)
Namiyansa Ha Untung (Guarantee for Life)
Lugoh (Sama melody)
Hol Doyon Kuy D'Wata (Let us praise the Creator!)
Awit Sa Krus (Song for the Cross)
Golpiadu Makimallo (Prayer for God's benevolence)
Uggayam (Kalinga ballad)
Dandannag (Song of health and happiness for grandparents)
Salidumay (Kalinga song)

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Monday, February 13, 2012

REVIEW: Kun Woo Paik Plays Ravel

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday February 11

I LOVE Ravel, especially his piano music. As an album programme, it makes a lot of sense to have all his piano music in two-discs and I like it that way. However, am I ready to sit through a complete Ravel piano music recital in the cramp seats of the concert hall, even if it will be played by Korean virtuoso Kun Woo Paik? When it comes to recitals, experience tells me that I do prefer a bit of variety… perhaps I get easily bored or I am just not sophisticated enough to appreciate such programming…



The recital started with Menuet antique and Paik’s cool classical style is immediately noticeable. With substantial flair, he managed to limit affectations by not going for big and sudden contrasting dynamics. Le tombeau de Couperin was my absolute favorite in the first part with its carefully balanced intensity and colouring.

The first part went extremely well and I looked forward to the second part in which the Gaspard de la nuit (famous for its difficulty) was slated. Paik’s unhurried tempo was surprisingly filled with inner intensity, it was subtle but the undercurrent spookiness was definitely apparent. In contrast with Yevgeny Sudbin (January 19 2011), Sudbin’s was more extroverted, displaying a pictorial account of the piece.

By the time Gaspard de la nuit ended with Scarbo, I had enough of Ravel and I can easily do without the third part… until I came back and heard Pavane pour une infante defunte. It was divine, natural fluidity at its best. The highlight of the third part should have been Miroirs, a suite of five movements, each dedicated to a fellow member of the French Impressionist group, Les Apaches. But for some reason, my mind kept going back to the Pavane pour une infante defunte and had difficulty concentrating on Miroirs.

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Kun Woo Paik plays Ravel
February 11 2012

Menuet antique
Prélude
Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn
Jeux d'eau
Le tombeau de Couperin

interval

Valses nobles et sentimentales
A la manière de Chabrier
A la manière de Borodine
Gaspard de la nuit

interval

Pavane pour une infante défunte
Sonatine
Miroirs

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest by the Rose Theatre Kingston


Academy of Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, Sunday February 5

A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, a perfectly summed description by Oscar Wilde himself. The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895 and has since entertaining people. Yes, entertaining and there’s nothing wrong with that. When it opened, some contemporary reviews warned that it lacks social message… really? I always thought that it packed with powerful commentary on the Victorian ways; but then it is also not difficult to see why one can’t be objective during that time.

First of all, I have to declare that I totally enjoyed the performance. It will have to take a daft production to make this wonderful play unbearable. Having said that, there will always be a role or two that one would have seen performed better in some other productions or one feels can be done better. In this case, I have to say it was Carol Royle’s Lady Bracknell… I wish she was a bit more “formidable”; and Ishia Bennison’s Miss Prism… I wish she was a tad more “Victorian”.

I particularly like Richard Dixon’s Canon Chasuble, he has that naughty, eager and shy combination that made the role stood-out without overshadowing others. Daniel Brocklebank’s Jack Worthing perfectly inhabited the stage with beautifully timed missteps and punches. The sparring between Kristy Besterman’s Gwendolen Fairfax and Faye Castelow’s Cecily Cardew when they believed that they were proposed by the same Earnest was most deliciously cutting.

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The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
February 2-5 2012
Rose Theatre Kingston

Creative Team:
Director: Stephen Unwin
Associate Director: Cordelia Monsey
Set Designer: Hayden Griffin
Costume Designer: Mark Bouman
Lighting Designer: Malcom Rippeth

Cast includes:
Lady Bracknell: Carol Royle
Algernon Moncrieff: Mark Edel-Hunt
Jack Worthing: Daniel Brocklebank
Gwendolen Fairfax: Kirsty Besterman
Cecily Cardew: Faye Castelow
Canon Chasuble: Richard Dixon
Miss Prism: Ishia Bennison
Lane / Merriman: Walter Van Dyk

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REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Ballet) by The Hamburg Ballet


Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Saturday February 4

For the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival, The Hamburg Ballet brought to Hong Kong two works by its artistic director and chief choreographer John Neumeier: Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler and A Streetcar Named Desire. I chose to see the latter one for I have always admired Neumeier’s unique narrative form and am most interested to see this “translation” of Tennessee Williams’ famous work (thought it premiered in 1983).


For anybody who is familiar with the play or the movie, they may find the first half of the ballet a bit confusing, but will realize after the performance the brilliance of Neumeier in rearranging the sequence. The story gained clarity by not following exactly the play. Instead of showing the arrival of Blanche in New Orleans to visit her sister Stella, the ballet showed Blanche in a room sitting on a bed with her suitcase beside her. This was an intriguing opening as one can’t determine whether she was about to leave or has just arrived and where exactly is the place (unless you read the program already). By the time the ballet ended, it suddenly revealed that the opening scene was actually showing Blanche’s arrival in the asylum and the whole 1st half was her slipping in and out of her troubled past.

Overall, it is a complex ballet with symbolisms and subtext stringed throughout. Helene Bouchet as the troubled Blanche du Bois was alluring and disturbed. The constant inconstant mind of her character was portrayed with amazing technique, care and stamina; and when needed, her body screamed at the audience. Ivan Urban danced Stanley Kowalski and he gave his best to a role that was unfortunately not as well choreographed and crafted as the other roles; and this brings me to my only criticism of the ballet. The dance language given to the role of Stanley Kowalski was almost like a caricature of bad people, he was more comical rather than brutish and sensual.

One of my favorite moments was the rape, it has to be the best “rape-choreography” I have ever seen; and this was because it was able to show how a mentally fragile woman was forced over the edge. The juxtaposition of Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, Op.22 (1st half) and Schnittke’s First Symphony (2nd half) was a brilliant choice; as they pretty much defined the dance language and the core psyche of the story. While the story may involve only a few key characters, Neumeier was able to integrate the rest of the company into a seamless, almost integral, part of the narrative; and this was partly due to the dancers’ energy and conviction to each step they took.

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3-5.2.2012
A Streetcar Named Desire

Music:
Sergey Prokofiev: Visions Fugitives, Op. 22
Alfred Schnittke: First Symphony
Choreography: John Neumeier (based on Tennessee Williams Staging)
Set and costumes: John Neumeier

Dancers include:
Blanche duBois: Helene Bouchet
Stella: Mariana Zanotto
Allan Gray, Alexandr Trusch
Stanley Kowalski: Ivan Urban

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