Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hong Kong China Philharmonic Orchestra – Lim Kek-han, Conductor/Violinist. December 8, 2007.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Seat Front Stall D24 (HK$180).


Overture to Rosamnude by Schubert

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 by Brahms

1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky

Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai

This was the fourth concert we attended this week. We again found out about it in the newspaper we read on the way over from Los Angeles. David and Ruby also came along; they got into town the evening before. We had a quick bite at the Macau Restaurant beforehand.

The best way to describe this concert was that it was an unmitigated disaster; this is particularly true of the first half. Exactly as David predicted. David said he listened to the conductor play the violin a few years back, and said he wasn't quite up to job then. I was joking he had had that many years to practice, so must have improved a lot. Was I wrong!

Now, how was it a disaster? Let me count the ways.

Tuning. Usually after the cacophony of the different instrument trying to line up with the A from the oboe, there is this sweet harmonious sound that comes from the orchestra. You could definitely the some instruments were not quite there, but then the players set their instruments down. There is no clock that makes it necessary for the orchestra ready by a certain time. Now with this group, you may need another 15 minutes. This problem plaques the soloist as well. After the first movement (of the Brahms Concerto), we were quite sure his violin was out of tune, and he was struggling with his intonation already. He didn't see the need to retune his violin, to our utter disbelief.

Technical ability. The music was beyond the technical ability of many of the players. This starts with the soloist who had difficulty with many of the passages, and completely butchered the double stops. Now Brahms isn't an easy piece, but at least one should be able to do the second movement with some semblance of artistry. He should have gone for Mozart or Vivaldi instead. Since the Principal Conductor (Lin) was the soloist, the concertmaster conducted the orchestra. He conducted to the extent that he kept the beat, but the orchestra was certainly confused. During the 1812 Overture the triangle player managed to come in just a fraction late (which would mean she was reacting rather than anticipating). The funny thing was her colleague then worked with her by teaching her how to rock to the rhythm – amazingly, it worked. Anne knows this “teacher” from her company's Hong Kong office.

Precision. I suspect they did not work on this at all. When your players can't even count properly, it would be difficult to ask them to be precise. A glaring example was the last note of Schubert's overture where the concertmaster played it short while everyone else played it long. Also, during the 1812, there was great confusion for a couple of measures where a couple of section were a half measure or so off. They eventually fixed it.

Yellow River” is a well known piece among the Chinese. It was written in the early 1900s but has been adopted (some might say hijacked) by left-leaning folks as a patriotic song. In my college days it was associated with Communist China and was quite popular during the days students were protesting against Japan on the ownership of Spratly Islands. After these many years, the political associated is greatly diminished. The cantata nonetheless is still quite popular – it is an enjoyable piece. The performance was okay, the soloists (except one) projected reasonably well. I had never listened to the entire piece, so was glad to be able to do it.

At the end of the program, the orchestra and chorus played a couple of encores. The conductor bowed and then launched into them. They repeated one of the songs (No. 6) in “Yellow River” and played a (I'm sure) Sousa piece. We suspected the conductor was afraid if he went backstage everyone would get up and leave.

The question I have is: Do they know they are bad? I look back on my high school and university orchestra days, and wonder if we were that bad. No, we couldn't have been this bad!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – David Atherton, Conductor; Viviane Hagner, Violin. December 7, 2007.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Seat Stalls F5 (HK$240).

Program – Pure Sibelius (1865 - 1957)

Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893)

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104

Finlandia, Op. 26 (1900)

This turned out to be the third of the four concerts Anne & I attended during our week or so in Hong Kong. We again discovered the event late, and were surprised that tickets were available. The auditorium is on the small side, and it was about 80% full (not counting the sections that were left empty). We went with my sister Ling and her husband Wally.

Our seats were in the sixth row, a bit to the left. So we had a good view of the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra (at least the first violins). Seating upfront actually gives you a limited view of the entire orchestra, but it is also fun to see clearly how the artists approached the performance.

One would expect a pure Sibelius event to be quite depressing, given the reputation of the composer. It wasn't the case this evening, though. Some of that was the programming, and some of that, alas, was how the conductor chose to interpret the music (incorrectly, in my opinion).

Sibelius composed eight pieces based on the Kalevala legends for a pageant; he subsequently destroyed four of the eight pieces, and published three of the pieces as the Karelia Suite, so named for the region where the legends mostly came from. The three pieces are: Intermezzo, Ballade, and Alla Marcia. We have heard other works by Sibelius based on that region also. I couldn't hear the timpani at first, although the balance seemed to improve as the performance went on. Nonetheless, I thought in general the performance didn't sound “Sibelian” enough and didn't quite depict what was described in the program notes. (E.g., there wasn't much bombardment coming across in the Alla Marcia movement.)

Much has been written about Sibelius as a violinist, and today's program notes mentioned that he actually was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic as a violinist.

Hagner looked much younger than the photos shown in the program. I had never heard of her, and didn't know what to expect. In general, she acquitted herself very well. Technically she was superb, despite the initial jitters. The first movement was a bit disjoint and unfocused, but the third movement was very well done. Her face at times showed more pain than the music, though. She will be playing with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony next year.

The symphony was surprisingly upbeat and relatively simple in structure; there wasn't this continuous moving forward that I have come to expect of Sibelius's work. The four movements are: Allegro molto moderato; Allegretto moderato; Poco vivace; and Allegro molto. The first three were quite short and ended unexpectedly; the fourth movement did have more of a “fanfare” feel to it.

Finlandia is always a crowd pleaser. one of the melodies has been adopted as the tune for the hymn “Be Still my Soul.” Given the sentiment of patriotism the original composition is supposed to incite, one wonders if it is appropriate to adopt the tune that particular way. In any case, it was an exciting conclusion for the evening.

Atherton has an impressive resume, but I didn't find his conducting tonight particularly inspiring. The Hong Kong Philharmonic is adequate, but there is still much to be desired, especially in the area of precision. It may be interesting to put out a “Pure Sibelius” program, but the notes should explain a bit how the different pieces hang together as, say, a representation of the different stages of Sibelius's work.

Yeung Ming Cantonese Opera – Dream of the Red Chamber. December 4, 2007.

Hong Kong Ko Shan Theatre, Seat Stalls L44 (HK$280).

Music Director – Tsang Kin Man; Jia Bo Yuk – Lau Wai Ming, Lin Dai Yuk – Wen Fei Yen, Mother Jia – Lin Bo Shen, Shue Bo Chai – Chan Ming Ying.

Story: Lin Dai Yuk, orphaned at a young age, is raised by the Jia family. She and Jia Bo Yuk grow up together and fall in love with one another. However, the Jia family wants Jai Bo Yuk to marry Shue instead, and they conspire to lie to Jia Bo Yuk with a "bait and switch". When Lin Dai Yuk finds out, she dies of a broken heart. During the wedding ceremony, Jia Bo Yuk finds out about the switch, and that Lin has died. He comes to Lin Dai Yuk's altar and dreams of her (thus the title of the play). When he awakes, he throws away the family heirloom and leaves home.

Despite having grown up in Hong Kong, I actually know very little about Cantonese Operas. I vaguely recall going to a “Grand Opera” as a small child, probably during the Chinese New Year, with my parents. These festival performances were long drawn out affairs and people went to see parts of the opera rather than sit through the entire work. Of course I know of the famous ones like “The Butterfly Lovers”.

Tonight's performance was quite an experience. A few thoughts come immediately to mind. It was long at over four hours, comprising a dozen or so scenes with short breaks in between (for scenery changes) and a 15-minute break two-thirds of the way. People felt free to talk during the show, sometimes rather loudly. The traditionally heavy makeup made it difficult to tell the different actors apart (especially the women). The lead man's role was played by a woman. A man played the role of the grandmother. I don't know much about Chinese music, so I found the accompaniment repeating after the singer a bit strange. The orchestra was quite small at 10 or so instruments, but produced a reasonably rich sound.

The singing was okay. I do not know what constitutes virtuoso singing in this genre, but the audience did applaud quite enthusiastically after certain renditions. However, it appeared the singers had to take lots of breaths. The two main characters actually appeared on stage at lot, so they had to be tired after four hours of singing, even with the help of a rather good audio system.

The book on which the play is based is very well known. I have to admit I haven't read it, so do not know how much of the original story was kept. What I saw, however, was a very simple plot; easy to follow, but leaves one wondering if there can be more. Given the plot of the opera, a lot can be edited out to make it quite a bit shorter. Editing out unnecessary passages after they have been written is a difficult task. And the writers here didn't do a good job of it. All this, however, may be applying a different set of rules and expectations to the genre. I do think the enjoyment of the opera can be greatly enhanced if the words (and an English translation) were available as subtitles. But that would greatly increase the expenses involved.

There wasn't much of a chorus in the opera. The one exception was during the dream sequence. Eight women (angels or fairies) were singing and dancing. The choreography was quite bad, unfortunately.

I guess about 30 million or so people speak Cantonese, and wonder how the genre got started and how well accepted it is in today's environment where Western culture seems to find its way deeper into the Chinese society. Indeed tonight's attendees were dominated by women of middle age or higher (and I am being charitable). Quite a few appeared to be enthusiastic fans of the genre and the actors. Some brought along flashing signs with the name of the principal actress (who was playing Jia Bo Yuk). Nonetheless, there was only one performance of this opera, and one can imagine the time and effort put in by the artists.

I rather enjoyed the show, and at times was moved by the plot. I can't say I have become a fan of the genre, though.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fou Ts'ong Piano Recital – December 2, 2007.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Seat Stalls V24 (HK$400).


Berceuse Heroique (1914) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Sonata No. 33 in C minor, Hob XVI: 20 (ca. 1765) by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

--- Moderato

--- Andante con moto

--- Allegro

Three Mazurkas, Op. 59 by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).

--- No. 1 Mazurka in A minor: Moderato

--- No. 2 Mazurka in A-flat: Allegretto

--- No. 3 Mazurka in F-sharp minor: Vivace

Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60 (1846) by Chopin

Sonata in B-flat, D960 (1828) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

--- Molto moderato

--- Andante sostenuto

--- Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatessa – Trio

--- Allegro ma non troppo

Most students of music in Hong Kong in the 60s knew about Fou Ts'ong. He was one of the few Chinese artists known worldwide during that period. I don't remember much about him except he was well regarded for his interpretation of Chopin. He performed in Hong Kong quite a few times when I was a high school student, but I never got a chance to hear him, and do not have any of his records.

We read about his recital in Hong Kong on the plane from LA to Hong Kong. Since we were landing the day before the event, we were sure no tickets would be available. Surprisingly, when we called the next morning, we were told tickets were available in all price categories. We arranged to have an early dinner with Anne's brothers, and managed to make the concert.

I seldom go to piano recitals, the last one I remember was a performance by Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall, several years ago. I vaguely recall her playing a couple of pieces by Chopin also, and, thinking back, that performance makes for an interesting comparison with Fou Ts'ong's performance tonight.

When Fou walked on stage, the first impression, unfortunately, was that he is old. Well, he was born in 1934, so he has every excuse to appear and act old. One of the reasons I don't like recitals is the loneliness projected by the artist (I'm sure that's not how they feel). In tonight's case, there was more melancholy than usual. He actually needed to support himself on the piano before he sat down, slowly.

His demeanor changed, drastically, once he started playing. The sound of the piano seemed just right, and he appeared absorbed in it. Well, I was so absorbed in it that Anne had to give me a nudge because I was “soundly” falling asleep. (Thankfully, it was only a short snort.) Now I was fighting both the jet lag and a severe bout of coughing, which I managed to suppress rather successfully, at great personal discomfort.

I am quite sure all the pieces are virtuosic compositions. He seemed to get through them with the greatest of ease, getting the notes out in their own good time, at the right tempo, without any hint of having to struggle. This contrasts considerably with Uchida's playing, my recollection of which was the pieces were barely within her grasp.

On the other hand, however, both the Chopin pieces seemed to lack the passion one would expect of the composer's works. Fou's analytical approach to music is further exemplified by the program notes provided by him. They give a good but analytical description of the works, but are short on background and the story the composers were trying to tell. The reader (and listener, if he listens while following the description) gets a good appreciation of the structure of the piece, but is left wondering if the composers are trying to say anything. To again contrast with Uchida, there was great urgency and passion to her rendition.

It's only during the third movement of the Schubert sonata that I began to feel some emotion in the playing. Surely, Fou's program notes reflect this. Schubert died shortly after completing this sonata, and “One can sense and feel the spiritual resignation and acceptance and perhaps sublimation of all earthly struggles in this work.

So I have mixed feelings about this concert. I am glad I got to see Fou Ts'ong, probably not in his peak form, but still demonstrating how a master approaches a concert. And the concert hall was quite full, with quite a few young people in the audience: I am glad people still remember and respect him in these days where Chinese superstars like Lang Lang and Li Yunde sell out concert after concert, all over the world.