Friday, May 25, 2012

SATOSHI on Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra 2012-2013 season

I finally got my HKPO brochure and it has the huge overflowing face of Jaap Van Zweden. As if that was not enough, the title of the brochure is "JAAP!" (pronounce as Yaap). Obviously, HKPO is trying to make a big deal of the new Music Director... well, we'll see... Overall, the programming was fine, but nothing revolutionary. Let say that it is more or less business as usual. In any case, of the 30 programmes, here's my top seven (7) in the order of performance date:

  1. Anne-Sophie Mutter (11/16&17): For a dose of star-power, very few come as potent as German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in her 36th year on stage. To showcase the artist’s musical versatility and incredible musicianship, she will be performing two full-length works. Together with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto is the critically-acclaimed Time Machine for violin and orchestra of Sebastian Currier, a work she premiered last year with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and was described as “riveting”. Are we surprised?
  2. Jaap’s Mendelssohn (12/7&8): The two Mendelssohn works (The Hebrides and Symphony No. 3) inspired by Scotland and to be conducted by the new Music Director Jaap Van Zweden are good enough reason to go to this concert; but the piece that I will be eagerly looking forward to will be Elgar’s Sea Picture with the Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. The Sea Picture is a song cycle that displays the dichotomy of fear and fascination; and it will be a thrill to hear Stotijn’s famous full-blooded mezzo course through it.
  3. The King of Instrument (1/11&12): Every now and then, we hear it, but in this concert, it will take the centre stage. The Cultural Centre Concert Hall organ is the largest mechanically operated instrument of its kind in Southeast Asia. To showcase it, the HKPO has programmed two of the most performed organ orchestral works (Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3) of the post-Baroque period. And to bring out the magic from the 4 manuals, 93 stops and 8,000 pipes, we will have the world-acclaimed organist Simon Preston with conductor David Atherton.
  4. Antarctic Journey (1/18&19): This concert is about exploration and discovery. Everything about the evening is an attempt to bring the less familiar to the Hong Kong audience. Be it the composers (Bax, Rautavaara, Vaughan Williams), the theme (Antarctic and Arctic) and even the format (performance with images and narration). And to lead the audience through this wonderful adventure is the more familiar and trusted former HKPO Music Director David Atherton.
  5. Ashkenazy Conducts (5/24&25): Indeed a musical giant of our time, Ashkenazy never fails to amaze his audience with his musicality whether he is playing the piano or conducting. For this HKPO concert, he will be conducting Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony and Strauss’ Don Juan, two Romantic works that juxtapose Finland’s indigenous beauty and the wild romance of a libertine. I also can’t wait to hear his take of Strauss’ Four Last Songs especially with the famous Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling performing.
  6. Liszt Piano Concertos (6/7&8): Whether it was his HKPO debut last year or his conducting of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Cosi Fan Tutte, Wigglesworth has definitely made a mark in Hong Kong. Joining him for the Liszt Piano Concertos (1 and 2) is no other than the British virtuoso Stephen Hough famed for his distinct style that transcends trends.
  7. Karadaglic’s Rodrigo (6/28&29): As the title suggests, this concert is about Milos Karadaglic tackling one of the most famous guitar concertos. Recipient of the 2011 Gramophone Award for Young Artist of the Year, Montenegrin Karadaglic is currently one of the hottest classical guitarists. Joining him is Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, currently the Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony, succeeding Kent Nagano and becoming only the third music director in the 40-year history of the orchestra.
If you want to find out more about HKPO's 2012-2013 season, check-out HKPO's website. WHAT'S YOUR TOP 7?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

REVIEW: Snow and the Deadly Seven

Backstage Live, Thursday May 17

When I received the ad invitation a month ago, I mentioned in my Facebook page that it was "so off my radar" that I might just go and see it. Well, I did.

It was a burlesque-cabaret, which means that it was for adults only. The beauty of the show was that it wasn't just a series of striptease, there was a theme and story and a damn good one also. Needless to say, the character Snow White and her evil mother was in it, but instead of the seven dwarves, we got the Deadly Seven named after the seven deadly sins. There was also the hunter (female) and the prince (male); and to make sure the audience knows what was going on stage, there was a host and a hostess.

I am no expert in the art of striptease, I have never performed one in public (cough) and I think the last time I saw one of any semblance to a striptease was Laura Benanti's Gypsy Rose Lee in the musical Gypsy (with Patti Lupone as Rose) in the 2008 Broadway production. As for the Snow and the Deadly Seven, the script written by Meaghan McGurgan and choreography by Sarah Lemcke were more than ample for the type of show. The script actually justified the presence of some of the performers and there were some really good moments that were genuinely witty and funny. Another beautiful aspect of the show was that the performers came in all shapes and sizes. Why not? Sexiness is more than just having an hour glass figure or a pretty face. At least for me, talent, intelligence and good sense of humor definitely are way up my list.

In translating concept to performance however, there were some challenges. Be it solos or ensembles, the production looked and felt under- rehearsed. The performers' inability to dance together undermined the show, but the inability of some of the solos to striptease in rhythm with the music was the most disturbing part. Having said that, one of the Deadly Seven, Lust, was a pleasure to watch as she moved and danced with utter confidence and flair. One positive aspect about some of the performers were their courage and eagerness to please; and I definitely find that most endearing.

So, did I enjoy my experience? Absolutely yes. I admire the guts of these ladies and the show (at least for me) carried a positive message on self-image. I had a lot of good laughs, some scripted and some not. I particularly love the part when Snow got stuck in her clothes and needed somebody to rescue her from her clothes :-) Will I watch it again? No. Will I recommend it? I will be most cautious.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

REVIEW: Carmen by Opera Hong Kong

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Saturday May 12

When it was announced that Opera Hong Kong is doing Carmen again, I was in total disbelief. WHY? Why would the company want to do Carmen AGAIN? Time-Out magazine then wanted me to do a preview of Carmen, so I did a bit of research and found out that the French director Philippe Arlaud was directing it. I agreed to do the preview on the condition that it will be an interview with Arlaud and not Warren Mok. I have nothing against Warren Mok, it was just that I was personally more interested in Arlaud. Anyway, to cut the long story short, the schedule didn’t permit it and instead I wrote a review. Click HERE to see my review in Time-Out Hong Kong.

This Carmen directed by Arlaud has to be the worst Carmen I have ever seen… in fact it has to be the worst production of any professional opera company I have ever seen. Arlaud is very lucky that the Hong Kong audience was a polite bunch. If this production was performed in Spain, Italy or Germany, I will not be surprised if he gets booed off stage! Some of the problems of this production were so basic that I can’t imagine anybody with any theatrical experience was not able to see and correct it. One part that I almost flipped on my seat was in Act 3 during the final Micaela, Jose and Carmen scene. While Jose and Carmen were on stage left struggling, Micaela had to run from stage right to stage left and climb onto a two-foot high trunk just to sing! There was absolutely no motivation for her to do that and most probably one would not have noticed it except that she had difficulty climbing onto the trunk!

The set by Arlaud was another problem. It was totally amateurish. To put a revolving stage and use it as a scene changer is as amateur as it gets. And when Arlaud attempted something creative with the revolving stage just like when Carmen pretended to have escaped, the whole stage action was clumsy and again amateurish. What about the Act 3 set that looked by the scene was taking place under the sea? The lighting by Arlaud was again amateurish with general washes of colors that neither was atmospheric nor highlighted any particular action on stage. As if these inanities were not enough, then you get a costume designer (Andrea Uhmann) whose idea of Spain was to gather everything kitsch and commercial about it and slap them on the performers regardless of the situation and stature. The few pieces that was appropriate was the traja de luces of Escamillo, BUT even with that, the taleguilla was not properly buttoned up below the knee. As for the choreography, having dancers stamp their feet in rhythm is just not good enough to pass as flamenco.

At the end of the day, what truly saved this production was the singing. All 4 leads did a great job vocally.

An Opera in 4 acts, performed in French with Chinese and English surtitles
10-12 May 2012 Thu-Sat 19:30; 13 May Sun 14:30
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Creative Team:
Producer: Warren Mok
Director/ Set/ Lighting Designer: Philippe Arlaud
Conductor: Benjamin Pionnier
Costume Designer: Andrea Uhmann
Chorus Director: Jimmy Chan
Shanghai Opera House Orchestra
Opera Hong Kong Chorus Opera
Hong Kong Children Chorus

Cast include:
Carmen: Rinat Shaham*/ Aurhelia Varak+
Don José: Jean Pierre Furlan*/ Chen Yong+
Micaela: Isabelle Cals*/ Yuki Ip+
Escamillo: Jean-Luc Ballestra*/ Albert Lim+
Zuniga: Jean-Marc Salzmann
Frasquita: Joyce Wong
Merzedes: Melody Sze
Morales: Sammy Chien
Dancairo: Albert Lim*/ Bryan Woo+
Remendado: Alex Tam

(*: 10-12 May 2012; +: 13 May)

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

REVIEW: Alexander Lazarev and HKPO

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday May 5

I heard a loud thump on the stage and the next thing I know I felt like I forgot my violin! Maestro Alexander Lazarev, with huge movements and enthusiastic waving of the hands, turned to the audience every now and then as if asking us to play along. Given that the first piece was Glazunov’s Raymonda Suite, perhaps he expected us to dance! The last time I saw Lazarev was in June 6 2010 and I don’t remember him being so animated.

Glazunov’ Raymonda is a delightful piece and Lazarev definitely took a lot of delight in shaping each “scene”. Though the piece maybe a bit lightweight, but it is full of melodic charm, such as the Variation’s delectable harp embroidery and the delicious violin solo in Grand Adagio. Overall, the orchestral playing was sometime a bit weighted, but most of the time ravishing.

After the interval came Stravinsky’s Concerto in E flat Dumbarton Oaks (so-called because it was composed there), a enchanting work and truly Stravinsky at his most sophisticated and specific of which the effect was both dynamic and spirited. Lazarev scaled down his gestures but not his command, ensuring that rhythms are befittingly sprung and the edgy textures are delicately balanced.

I am not sure which one is my favorite, the Stravinsky or the Borodin that followed. Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 is an important milestone in Russian symphonic music, not only was its musical construction original and the orchestration was colorful, expressive, dramatic and most importantly nationalistic. In fact, for those who have heard Prince Igor, one would feel like this is the symphonic version of it. Here, Lazarev was at it again and the orchestra responded. The piece opened powerfully; and while the theme was repeated, Lazarev took well-judged changes of rhythm and orchestral color in its development. The Scherzo was played with great virtuosity by HKPO, while the Andante may have been a tad slow. The finale, needless to say was done with great gall and gusto.
Splendour of Russia: 3 Alexanders
Alexander Lazarev in Russian Extravaganza
4&5-5-2012 Fri & Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

GLAZUNOV (arr. Korndorf):  Raymonda Suite
STRAVINSKY: Concerto in E flat Dumbarton Oaks
BORODIN: Symphony No.2

Alexander Lazarev, conductor

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

REVIEW: Beethoven 9 – The Moment of Farewell with HKPO

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday April 21

I think this review is the tardiest I have ever been, excluding of course when I was going to performances abroad and have two performances each day. Work lately has been quite tough but in some ways quite fulfilling. Particularly, one project has kept me at the edge of my seat last week with its possibility of falling through. Luckily, it didn’t; in fact, it was a small victory for me!

It has been two weeks since I saw the concert; and tonight, I am seeing another one, thus I know that if I don’t get this out, the impressions will collide and overlap and I will mess them up... so here it goes. 

When the programme was announced at the start of the season, I have to admit that the focal point of this concert for me was never Beethoven anyway; it was Susan Graham and Berlioz. Of course as the date came nearer, the “farewell” aspect of the occasion became apparent. The concert hall was packed and the importance of the evening was palpable. This is THE LAST PERFORMANCE of Maestro de Waart as the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of HKPO!

The evening started with American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and Berlioz. The last time I saw Susan Graham in a live performance was her Donna Elvira role debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004 (with Karita Mattila as Donna Anna and Bryn Terfel as Don Giovanni!). Needless to say, she was fabulous and I of course expected same fabulousness in her rendition of Berlioz’ La Mort de Cléopâtre… She totally exceeded my expectation! Susan Graham gave a performance of genuine warmth, haunting intensity and dark awareness of the ominous death of the Queen. During the performance, I can’t help but have this vision of a surfer maneuvering the wave with great ease, passion and flair. Maestro de Waart’s accompaniment was beautifully judged; while the tempi may have been a bit measured, it was to the pleasure of savoring Graham’s artistry.

The second half definitely had the feeling of an “occasion”, it is the great Ninth after all! Overall, Edo de Waart and the HKPO gave a fine account of it. It had the right drive without the brooding weight of drawn out drama; and the breadth of superb rhythm and pacing. Each soloist was great on their own, but as an ensemble, there was a bit of disparity. At the root of it, I am afraid, is soprano Lisa Larsson’s tendency to slide from one note to the other. Bass-baritone Mark Schnaible gave an inspiring performance, while tenor Henry Choo (whom I saw before as Almaviva in 2007 Opera Australia’s The Barber of Seville in Melbourne’s The Arts Centre) showed a beautiful lyrical voice that knew how to blend with the others. As for Susan Graham, she can do no wrong. The Shanghai Opera House Chorus turned in a beautiful and full-on performance. However, in some segments, the sopranos were a bit over-stretched and uncharacteristically under the note. But still, it was a great Beethoven 9th performance for such an important evening.

P.S. Between the two B’s, the French was the highlight, all because of the Dutch, the Hong Konger and the American.


Edo de Waart Festival: Beethoven 9 – The Moment of Farewell
20&21-4-2012 Fri; Sat 8PM
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cléopâtre
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No.9

Edo de Waart: conductor
Lisa Larsson: soprano
Susan Graham: mezzo-soprano
Henry Choo: tenor
Mark Schnaible: bass-baritone
Shanghai Opera House Chorus

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