Review of 2012: Concerts

2012The beginning of a year is a good time to summarise the one that passed. It certainly does, just as my beloved colleagues at Radio 4 are working that out every year. Vote there to get your voice heard; meanwhile I would share my definitive concert moments of 2012 that I personally think that worth a mention.

Most memorable concerts

Some of the concerts I attended are so memorable that I have repeatedly talked about them among good friends. The top of the chart would certainly be Jaap van Zweden’s inaugural concert as Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director. There was no red ribbons this time decorating the house, but the sheer excitement of music, particularly a super-charged Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, drew unanimous praise. For me, it was not only the performance that amused me. “It is simply a different orchestra, compared to another Beethoven symphony played merely two weeks ago,” I wrote in my review appeared here in this blog. The change was radical.

I was not saying that Antoni Wit, who had conducted a commanding version of Beethoven’s Eroica, a lesser conductor. He was apparently fluent with all the music he got, particularly when he conducted with ease a symphonic poem by César Franck. And his Beethoven made a lot of sense in structure. After two weeks, however, under Mr. van Zweden, the orchestra was radically renewed. Musicians may consider that good honest work; I would consider it magic.

Invigorating Baroque ensemble

There were some regrets for me not having written a complete review on the evening performance of English Concert. That was one of the best Baroque music concerts in recent years. As I were preparing the pre-concert talk, I was quite puzzled by the selection of the music for that concert: Bach’s first suite, oboe concerto, Handel’s arias from Guilio Cesare, and the cantata Silete venti. Not the most famous from the two composers, and putting them together does not make an explicit theme. However the music went on with natural simplicity. The ensemble was having superb balance between dexterity and energy. The refinement of the notes did not hinder the energy to flow from within. And it was Carolyn Sampson that made me so much excited and surprised, by singing a deeply dramatic Silete venti. The word-music relations deep down in the music were effectively brought to the surface. Friends know me as a “Handel-loather,” of course due to ignorance and deficiency, but she has me to reconsider the composer seriously. The enlightenment was so deep that I could only recall a similar experience when I heard John Eliot Gardiner conducting a performance of Dido and Aeneas with Monteverdi Choir many years ago. (Chinese reader may read a review of the English Concert evening here)

Some disappointments

Well, most memorable concerts don’t necessarily mean great concerts. There are certainly moments that you register them as disappointments.

The Royal Concertgebouw‘s appearance in Hong Kong Arts Festival is certainly one. The performance was not bad. But with a world class orchestra before me, it would be natural to expect some great moments. That was not a guarantee; there was good music, but the performance was far from great. “It is an effective performance, but somehow it is a few newtons short in making Brahms a great impact,” as I wrote. That leaves me again to that question: why paying that much to go to famous concert balanced only by the reputation but not the greatness of performance?

And I have repeatedly asked why Myung-Whun Chung conducted anything but Olivier Messiaen. That’s his thing. But now orchestras are increasingly avoiding the challenging repertoire, instead replaying all those three-B classics. The same happened half a year later, to Antoni Wit — why not Penderecki, Lutoslawski, or Szymanowski but Beethoven?

And even with classics, that’s not easy to please. Chien Wen-pin, the Taiwanese conductor that I very much admired, had a not-quite-successful performance of Brahms’ First Symphony with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. I have missed his previous two performances with the HKS, to which both of them had rave reviews among my concertgoer friends. But this concert brought me some grudges of ineffective playings and unsuccessful dramas (Listen here for a recorded broadcast).

New work

I have listened to many new works this year; mainly for assigned work and I tend to refrain myself from commenting them here. But there was one big new work that happened this year that worth to mention. I have worked extensively on the performance of Mark Chan’s The Flight of the Jade Bird, as part of the New Vision Arts Festival. Billed as an opera, it was a stage work with limited acting, extensive dancing and music that defied easy categorisation. A successful performance of placing good balance between the performing elements, the most uneasy part for me is the story. Mr. Chan tries to balance the old and the new, with the legendary jade bird being forced away by a proposed theme park. The musical balance is effective and at times very inspirational, with modern touches on an eclectic mix of Chinese and Western instruments. The use of voices, sometimes removed from the story and performed merely as vocal instruments, is imaginative. The libretto, however, deliberately avoid making moral choices, leaving the story open and disrupt.

The opera, being rescaled to a very small Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre from a big stage of Singapore’s Esplanade, lacked the space for all the things to happen in an ideal proportion. The dance was great, but Mui Cheuk-yin’s movement was severely limited by a narrow corridor named “a river.” The narrator, central to the narrative of the opera, was placed atop separated from the stage, making him quite detached and unmotivated. The most eye-catchy element was, unfortunately, the bilingual slides of narrated words; they were neither subtitles nor surtitles, as they occupied the central view of audience and acted as the main distractor of the entire performance. May be we should relive the controversy of operatic surtitles?

Looking ahead

I have heard some disappointing gossips so far; orchestras that I have seen, music that many have heard. But surely there may be surprises coming. Stay tuned, and like my Facebook page to get an update (if not too late!).

There is another Review of 2012 article in my blog, please click here for a review of last year’s recordings.

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