Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Opera-in-concert; Edo de Waart, conductor. May 15, 2010.

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Balcony (Seat B132, HK$280).

Fidelio, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Story. Leonore’s husband Florestan is imprisoned as a political prisoner by Don Pizarro. Leonore disguises herself as Fidelio and gets a job at the prison. Pizarro asks Rocco to murder Florestan upon hearing the visit by the Minister of Justice Don Fernando. As Pizarro prepares to kill Florestan, Fernando appears and orders the release of the prisoner.

Cast. Leonore/Fidelio – Susan Bullock, Florestan – Simon O’Neill, Rocco – Kristinn Sigmundsson, Marzelline – Lisa Larsson, Don Pizarro – Eike Wilm Schulte, Don Fernando – Andrew Foster-Williams. Shanghai Opera House Choir, Martin Wright, Chorus master and vocal coach.

Fidelio is the only opera Beethoven wrote. He was supposedly only interested in serious stories and detested works such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro because he considered them frivolous. On this point I somewhat agree with Beethoven as I find comedic operas generally a less than satisfactory experience. Beethoven also recognized his shortcomings as an operatic composer as this work was revised a couple of times.

Despite the program notes claim that this is a huge and lasting success, I have never come across a staged performance and this is the first opera-in-concert I ever encountered. The Leonore Overtures, on the other hand, are standard orchestra repertoire.

In tonight’s performance the Overture started very well with the strings playing crisply in unison. However, the horns sounded very tentative when they first came in, although they improved as the program proceeded.

Given the stage and where the conductor, the orchestra, and the cast were, it is difficult to see how the singers got their cues from the conductor. But they managed, probably with the help of the TV monitors placed at the back of the auditorium. The auditorium seats about 2000 people, it feels quite intimate as the balcony (which has about ½ the seats) surrounds the stage. A good part of the balcony was blocked off, part empty and part used by the chorus.

During Act 1 the performance wasn’t particularly impressive. Pizarro especially couldn’t project his voice. Neither did Susan Bullock do well as Fidelio. The program notes describes her as an accomplished Wagner singer, I wonder how she manages as Brunnhilde or Isolde with such a weak voice, or is the acoustics in the Concert Hall so bad? Interestingly, a lot of the music sounded like Mozart, which is reasonable to expect given the musical heritage of those days. But I wonder how Beethoven would react if this was pointed out to him.

This is the second staged opera I have heard (the other being Berlioz’s Faust). Even though there was some acting involved, there was no sense of anguish in the singing. I needed the crutch of seeing the inside of a prison cell, perhaps. Another interesting fact is that the English and Chinese surtitles were often different. They conveyed the meaning quite well, but can’t be exact translations of the original German text.

I took a more center seat after the intermission, and the acoustics sounded much better there. My revised opinion was probably caused by the long “God” sung by Florestan when he first appeared. Unfortunately the brass still sounded tentative. And I saw the narrator sitting at a desk! Florestan was wearing tails, a first for a prisoner, I’m sure. A trio sung by Rocco, Leonore, and Florestan was one of the few moving scenes for the entire opera. One thing I noticed was that Florestan sang towards the balcony while most other singers sang towards the lower level, that may explain why most of them sounded weak. You would think the first thing they teach is to sing to the entire audience.

All in all, however, Act 2 was much more enjoyable. Indeed I entertained the thought of leaving after the first act since I was a bit sleepy from jet lag and the wine I had during dinner. I am glad I stayed.

This was the first time I saw de Waart, and I enjoyed his conducting. Maybe he could be a bit more economical in his cues, but he seemed to generate a coherent and pleasant rendition of the opera. As for the opera itself, I am a bit disappointed.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra – Yan Huichang, conductor; Wong Chi-ching, pipa; Akiko Suwanai, violin. May 8, 2010.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Rear Stalls (Seat R7, HK$250).

Three Melodies of West Yunnan by Guo Wenjing.
A Thousand Sweeps by Law Wing-fai.
Violin Concerto, The Butterfly Lovers, by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.
The Yellow River Capriccio by Cheng Dazhao.

I do not know much about Chinese music. Even though I grew up in Hong Kong, most people I knew would associate music with western music. At my high school we did have many classmates who learned Chinese music instruments – I still remember a friend demonstrating how the pipa was played – and I am quite sure there was a Chinese Orchestra. Nonetheless my exposure to Chinese music has been the occasional Chinese opera, several different kinds of instruments, and some knowledge of the theory behind most of it (such as the pentatonic scale.)

This performance challenged most of my belief and prior knowledge about the genre (if I may call it that). For example, there are many “hu” instruments ranging in pitch from the high “gao hu” to the low “bass gehu”. To me they parallel those of a western orchestra (violin and bass strings for gaohu and bass gehu, for instance). The seating arrangement of the orchestra section parallels that of a western orchestra. The only significant deviation is the many plucked strings represented in the Chinese Orchestra. Some instruments are western (timpani, bass drum) and some are borrowed by western music (the gong and the whip).

In that sense the performance was very much like a western orchestra playing Chinese music; in this case the sounds were more oriental and individual techniques can be quite different. The way the music is conducted is quite western also, except in the case of Yan there was a lot more movement and cues to the sections.

The first piece was commissioned by this Orchestra, with the first two movements (A Va Mountain; Jino Dance) composed in 1994 and the last (Sacrifice – Torches – Potent Liquors) completed considerably later in late 2008. I went to Yunnan recently and wouldn't have associated the piece with that region. The music sounded quite dissonant at various times and instead of feeling unresolved I just wished it didn't sound as “grating” as it did. While one could hear the “tonic” note quite easily, there was none of this pentatonic stuff.

The pipa soloist is a member of the orchestra. She clearly seems to be a master at the instrument, but the instrument evidently calls for limited types of techniques like strumming and pushing the strings along the frets, and the occasional harmonic note. And the pipa probably works better when played by itself. It was heard clearly when played by itself and was often drowned out by the orchestra especially during the louder passages.

The Butterfly Lovers is a popular violin concerto, originally written for the violin and a western orchestra. It has been arranged for different solo instruments and ensembles, tonight's edition premiered in 1978 by this orchestra.

Akiko Suwanai comes with great credentials: youngest ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, student at Julliard, and the 1714 Stradivarius “Dolphin” once owned by Jascha Heifetz. She played well, but not perfect. Some passages are difficult, but shouldn't present as much problems as they did for her.

I hadn't heard the entire concerto for a while and was surprised that while the music contains many nice melodies, the overall construction of the concert leaves quite a bit to be desired. The composers couldn't quite string the melodies together the way Dvorak could with the New World Symphony, for instance. The three sections are played through without a break. They parallel the famous folklore of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The Introduction and Exposition section represents the brotherly pledge of Liang and Zhu (who disguised herself as a boy so she could study); the Development describes Zhu's refusal to enter into a pre-arranged marriage; the Recapitulation pictures how the two lovers turn into butterflies by reintroducing the original love theme.

There is this rather long discussion in the program notes about why the angst of the Hong Kong and Macau people led to the popularity of the piece in the two cities. I was a teenager when all this happened and can say nothing is further from the truth. I would say the piece was popular because the rather simple taste of the concert-going audience just lapped up the melodies. Remember Hong Kong was called a “cultural desert” at that time. Certainly in the 60s there was no such thing as a torn national identity among the young people (I attended a rather influential high school, with Dr. Sun Yat-sen being an alumnus of the school.) We thought of ourselves as Chinese ruled by benevolent British colonialists and were deathly afraid of the communists in Mainland China. In Chinese parlance, what the annotator did can be considered revisionist.

The fourth piece was supposed to describe how meandering the Yellow River it. There were quite a few passages where the suo-na played an important part. The instrument looks like something between a trumpet and a clarinet and – to me – produces a sound that is simply aweful. It reminds me of a Chinese funeral dirge.

Three encore pieces were played. The first two were “Ever Upward” and “Eagle Shooter”. The third one was (I think, didn't hear Yan clearly) “Filled up with Blessings.” Yan engaged the audience in playing the little drums were were handed, and to shout “hu” and “ha” as part of the performance. I must say he was quite good at getting the audience involved.

I have mixed feelings about the concert. I am of the belief that any thing done at the highest level is amazing to the observer. It may well be true in this case, and there are occasions when I watched in awe; in general, though, I left the concert feeling something was lacking.