Tuesday, March 12, 2013

REVIEW: Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday March 10

This production has been to several places already and a lot of things have been said also. In fact, when I was in Amsterdam in January, same production was there. Personally, my introduction to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach was accidental and innocent… or rather ignorant. I love musicals and my love for opera and classical music all stemmed from it. When I have already exhausted the musical section of the music shop, I would go to the opera section and start checking out whatever English titles it will have hoping that I will find the likes of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In this quest almost twenty years ago, I found the likes of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.

It was, however; Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach that I found most perplexing as I just don’t understand it! With the other recordings, there was a nice booklet with a “comprehensible” synopsis and the libretto, but for Einstein… I just can’t find a storyline… because there’s none. Being me, I became obsessed in trying to understand it and it was not easy during those days when there was no internet and no Wikipedia! However, it didn’t take long before I give up in finding a storyline but instead just simply listening and enjoying it. It also didn’t take long before I bought the Laserdisc of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Glass’ CD of the same title (I have already started to explore non-English titles at this point). I tried to play the video with the audio muted while listening to the Philip Glass’ CD through my Discman. Needless to say, it was hard work as their speed were very different; and it was such a relief when the DVD of the film came out with Philip Glass' complete opera synched to the film on a separate audio track.

I have never seen Einstein staged before and my excitement was really more about finding out how peculiar the whole thing will be. At this point, I was really more attuned to it being a “show” rather than an opera. The fact that the score can accommodate a different staging; but it was decidedly affixed to Robert Wilson’s original concept, makes the “soundtrack” a slave to the Wilson’s theatrical images.

Visually, Einstein was no less abstract. One can’t really figure out much about Einstein or his works except that perhaps he loved trains and paper planes, he played the violin, and his works has something to do with nuclear bomb. While seating in the theatre though (I had two toilet breaks), I felt that I was seeing a period piece. There was more nostalgia rather than amazement on the significance of the work; and I suppose that it should be, after all this was concocted in the 70’s. The experience also pointed out how ordinary the sound and concept is in today’s world where video games played loudly in street and train (not to mention ringtones) have the same electronic repetitive quality to them especially in busy and packed Hong Kong. Well, they may not have the same sophistication as Glass’ harmonic and rhythmic progression; but they have somehow conditioned my immediate and instinctive reaction to such sound from neutrality to annoyance.

The performance highlighted though the very high level of commitment and concentration needed to pull the whole show through; and when something went wrong, it reminded the viewers how fragile the spell and focus can be. The extended tenor saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman (his over enthusiasm produced some painful notes) and soprano solo by Hai-Ting Chinn (marred by suppressed coughs), though not perfect were still very much welcomed diversions. For some reason, every time Antoine Silverman (looking like Einstein) is on his seat playing the violin, the term “carpal tunnel syndrome” kept crossing my mind. His unbelievable constancy was beautiful yet painful to look at. On the other hand, it also crossed my mind that if all automated answering services in Hong Kong use featured performers Helga Davis and Kate Moran’s voice, it would be a way less stressful city! The Lucinda Childs Dance Company executing Lucinda Child’s choreography was a showcase of indefatigable concentration. The vocalists and the ensemble under Einstein veteran Michael Riesman gave the score the consistency (and sometimes with additional push) it needed to fuse all the different elements together beautifully.

Now, I can say, “been there, done that.”
An Opera in Four Acts
by Robert Wilson - Philip Glass
Produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc. Linda Brumbach, Executive Producer

Creative Team:
Music/Lyrics: Philip Glass
Direction/Set and Light Design: Robert Wilson
Choreography by: Lucinda Childs
Spoken Text: Christopher Knowles/Samuel M Johnson/Lucinda Childs
Lighting: Urs Schöenebaum
Sound: Kurt Munkasci
Costumes: Carlos Soto
Hair/Make-Up: Campbell Young Associates: Luc Verschueren
Music Director: Michael Riesman
Co-Director: Ann-Christin Rommen
Directing Associate: Charles Otte

Cast includes:
Helga Davis
Kate Moran
Antoine Silverman
The Lucinda Childs Dance Company
Music Performed by The Philip Glass Ensemble
Conducted by Michael Riesman

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Monday, March 11, 2013

REVIEW: Mission Drift by The TEAM

City Hall Drama Theatre, Saturday March 9

“Half the weight, twice the man”, is what a friend of mine used to say every time he went to the toilet to take a dump. For some reason, this phrase came to my mind after I saw Mission Drift. If the show would just cut the length and make it a bit more compact, it would have worked. Okay, perhaps even just tighten up the narrative would do.

Mission Drift is directed by Rachel Chavkin and written by The TEAM, Theater of the Emerging American Moment. Yes, TEAM is the acronym of this Brooklyn-based collaborative ensemble whose mission is to create “new performance works about the experience of living in America today” and one wonders whether which came first, the acronym or what the short form stands for. Like its name though, there is a sense that this collaborative ensemble tries very hard to force ideas into a box and somehow pass it off as modern or new theatre.

Mission Drift is a play with music on the expansion and devastation of the USA. The play was a clutter of small scenes on the country’s all-consuming desire for growth represented by the city of Las Vegas, a neon-lit mirage in the middle of Nevada that seemingly attracts and attacks the countless dreamers. It started interestingly and intelligently and slipped into an overambitious multi-stream narrative. It got Joan (Amber Gray), a third-generation employee of a gaming giant who got laid off because the casino has been forced to scale back. Then it also got Catalina (Stephanie Wright Thompson), the forever 14 years old who trek her way from Amsterdam in 1624 to modern Las Vegas. Then it also got Miss Atomic (Heather Christian), who practically served as the default M.C. through her snide remarks and heavy bluesy songs. There were guys too (Bryce Gill and Ian Lassiter)…

The highlight of the show was actually the music of Heather Christian who also did most of the singing. Actually, all the six cast members did sing and they were all good. The problem was that the music was only perhaps a fourth of the show. In fact, all the actors did extremely well beyond the singing. All the dancing and acting were a pleasure to witness except that it just highlighted further the shortcoming of the material itself. The more time the actors spent on stage, the less point they made and whatever point they made, they just became pointless.
Mission Drift

Creative Team:
Artistic Director: Rachel Chavkin
Written by: The TEAM, in collaboration with
Co-Writers: Heather Christian and Sarah Gancher
Composer: Heather Christian
Lyrics: Heather Christian and the TEAM
Scenic Designer: Nick Vaughan
Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs
Costume Designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Lighting Designer: Jake Heinrichs
Associate Lighting Designer: Seán Linehan
Associate Choreographer: Jake Margolin

Cast inlcudes:
Miss Atomic / Piano: Heather Christian
Joan: Amber Gray
Joris Rapalje: Bryce Gill
Catalina Rapalje: Stephanie Wright Thompson
Chris / Others: Ian Lassiter
Percussion: Matt Bogdanow
Guitar / Bass: Josh Myers

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REVIEW: Chinglish by David Henry Hwang

HKAPA Lyric Theatre, Wednesday March 6

I was able to catch the last performance of this wonderful play by David Henry Hwang as part of the 41st Hong Kong Arts Festival. Gaining success in the West must be very good where this play may be considered quite amusing and a novelty. BUT what about here in Asia? Particularly here in Hong Kong? I personally think that Hong Kong might just be where the applause ends and I am just not sure whether how the other people across the border will think of the play. My guess is that they will not be amused at all.

Upon knowing the theme behind the play, Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation immediately came to mind and I wondered how much unpleasant stereotyping would be directed toward the yellow people this time. On the other hand, Chinglish is written by a Chinese-American and perhaps it would be different… and indeed it was very different.

To read my review of the play for online art magazine HKELD, please click here.
By David Henry Hwang 
Directed by Leigh Silverman
A co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Repertory

Creative Team:
Playwright: David Henry Hwang
Director: Leigh Silverman
Scenic Designer: David Korins
Costume Designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting Designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Designer: Darron L West
Projection Designers: Jeff Sugg, Shawn Duan
Mandarin Chinese Translator: Candace Chong
Cultural Advisors: Joanna C Lee, Ken Smith

Cast includes:
Daniel Cavanaugh: Alex Moggridge
Peter: Brian Nishii
Miss Qian / Prosecutor Li: Celeste Den
Minister Cai: Raymond Ma
Xi Yan: Michelle Krusiec
Bing / Judge Geming: Austin Ku
Zhao: Vivian Chiu

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REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet by the American Ballet Theatre

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday March 3 (Matinee)

Two years ago, Hong Kong saw the New York City Ballet as part of the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival. I saw one of the programs and in my review I wrote, “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.”

Just like opera, one might think that the New York City Opera is the lesser sister of The Metropolitan Opera. When I heard that the American Ballet Theatre is visiting Hong Kong for the 41st Hong Kong Arts Festival, I thought that I would be in for some good quality ballet! I was so wrong. ABT is not the MET of ballet.

I decided to choose Romeo and Juliet, rather than the other mixed programs in hope to see the full splendor of the company. Instead, I believe that it actually highlighted the shortcomings of the company and the production.

There are two Romeo and Juliet ballets that I am more familiar with, John Cranko’s and Kenneth MacMillan’s. In general, I feel that MacMillan was a better choreographer, well maybe except for Romeo and Juliet. Cranko’s pace was faster, there was a better balance between ensemble and individuals and contrast between revelry and tragedy. MacMillan’s, on the other hand, while may have more depth, actually missed a bit of focus and have a bit too much going on. BUT, there are a great deal to like about MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet; and I particularly like what some people called the 4 “B” duets – ballroom, balcony, bedroom and bier. MacMillan’s pas de deux are to die for!

For the American Ballet Theatre performance, the first thing I noticed was the scenery and costume design of Nicholas Georgeadis. At first, the Renaissance opulence was visually attractive, but it didn’t take long before the monochromatic theme began to wear heavy on the whole production.

The bulk of my disappointment though is on the dancing. In particular, the ensemble set pieces looked sloppy. I can understand if a bigger group can’t dance in sync but even the trio of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio was an eyesore. Alexandre Hammoudi proved to be a reliable parter to Hee Seo’s Juliet. While handsome, tall and have long and gorgeous legs, his technique fell short for the demanding role of Romeo. Hee Seo’s dancing and portrayal of Juliet, on the other hand, was perhaps the only good things that met my expectation of what I thought was one of the greatest American ballet companies.
Romeo and Juliet
Ballet in Three Acts

Creative Team
Choreographer: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Scenery and Costume Designer: Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting Designer: Thomas Skelton
Conductor: Charles Barker (27.2, 1-3.3)
With Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Cast includes:
Juliet: HEE SEO

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

REVIEW: Jordi Savall - Les Voix Humaines

City Hall Concert Hall, Saturday March 2

It was a cold winter night and the heater was down. The room was dark except for the floor lamp shedding just enough light to illuminate the music stand. Behind the stand was a man in his coat and scarf with his legs embracing an instrument that looked familiar yet not and sounded familiar yet not. Except for a few coughs and once a phone ringing in the next room, there was nobody else and no other sound in the room except for the peculiar instrument singing with voice that was weak yet intense. There was only him and I; and he was playing for me only.

That may sound a bit melodramatic, but fortunately, that was how I exactly felt. The City Hall Concert Hall has never ever felt more intimate than Jordi Savall’s recital. I always believe the importance of venue befitting the type of performance, but in the case of this recital, the staging, the programme and the performance defied it. The hall was surprisingly packed and the performance was amplified. From where I was seated though, the amplification was subtle enough not to take away the magic of hearing live a true virtuoso of viola da gamba playing it all alone. The purity of sound and the experience was like going back in time and hearing the 1697 Barak Norman 7-string viola da gamba in a small hall.

The title Les Voix Humaines came from one of the most beautiful pieces of music by 17th century French composer and viol player Marin Marais, but it is also used as the title of the recital to emphasize the human quality of the sounds the instrument is capable of producing. Needless to say, in the hands of Savall, the instrument sang, breathed, sighed, laughed and cried and when required it became a bagpipe! Personal favorites are the set pieces of Marin Marais and The Bag-pipes Tuning from Manchester Gamba Book (anonymous).

This could possibly be the most riveting event of the Festival!

Les Voix Humaines (The Human Voices)


Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787)
- Prélude
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
- Allemande
Johannes Schenck (1660-after 1710)
- Aria Burlesca

Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils (c. 1660-1720)
- Fantaisie en Rondeau
Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (c. 1640-1701)
- Les Pleurs (The Tears)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
- Bourrée (& improvisations)

Le Sieur de Machy (second half of 17th century)
- Prélude en Ré mineur
Marin Marais (1656-1728)
- Les Voix Humaines (The Human Voices)
- Muzettes I & II La
- Sautillante (The Hopping Dancer)

Tobias Hume (c. 1569-1645)
- Musicall Humors A Souldiers March
- Captaine Hume's Pavin & Galliard
- Harke, Harke – Woope Doe Me No Harme
- A Souldiers Resolution

Lessons for the Lyra-Viol - Alfonso Ferrabosco II (c. 1575-1628)
- Coranto
Thomas Ford (c. 1580-1648)
- Why Not Here?
John Playford (1623-1686)
- La Cloche (The Bell) – Sarabande in F major

The Bag-pipes Tuning from Manchester Gamba Book (c.1580-1640)
- A Pointe or Preludium (Prelude)
- The Lancashire Pipes (The Lancashire Bag-pipes)
- The Pigges of Rumsey (The Rumsey’s Pets)
- The Cup of Tee (The Cup of Tea)
- Kate of Bardie
- A Toye (A Toy)

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Monday, March 4, 2013

REVIEW: Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble with Marc Minkowski

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Friday March 1

The thing about advance booking with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, one doesn’t really know what seat one will be assigned with or one tended not to have any preferred section in fear that the demand may be high and one ended up not having any ticket. It was therefore with dismay that I found myself seating at the front part of house right, a section that tended to be overwhelmed by the double bass section. Luckily, for the MDLG, the double bass section was at the back and as far as I am concern, the orchestra sounded well balanced from where I was seated.

Conductor Marc Minkowski proved to be a charming narrator and conductor. For the opening piece, Gluck’s Don Juan ou Le Festin de Pierre, Minkowski cheerfully narrated the story. Though with his heavy French accent, I did refer back to the program just to make sure I understand what he was talking about. The immediate sound and impact of MDLG was that it was very much at home with the music. It showed that the MDLG do not only understand Gluck’s music but also made it their business to play his music very well. The tempi and style felt right and highlighted Gluck’s considerable understanding of dance as an art form not only different but also independent of opera. The structure was crafted to build a dramatically potent ending and the MDLG did exactly that from elegant dances to the ominous passacaglia.

After the interval was the highlight of the evening, Rameau’s Une Symphonic Imaginaire, a wonderfully assembled “symphony” that is based on orchestral suites from Rameau’s operas, ballets and other works. This attempt is a result of the never-ending disappointment from music lovers that unlike Bach or Handel, Rameau didn’t write symphonies or concertos. This “symphony” that Rameau was not able to write, however, was most enchanting with thanks to Minkowski, The combination and flow did not only showcase the genius of Rameau’s melodic innovation and harmonic creativity, but also Minkowski’s deep understanding and affection toward Rameau’s music. The result was fabulous and MDLG played it with its usual exuberance and poetic sensitivity.

With or without the three encores, the evening was truly most satisfying.

Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble

GLUCK Don Juan ou Le festin de pierre
RAMEAU Une Symphonie Imaginaire (Imaginary Symphony)


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