Transforming the fateful exploration to a successful <i>Antarctic Journey</i>

This review is published on the March issue of Art Plus.

Classical music lovers, myself included, often complain of a general lack of imagination in orchestra concert programming. Innovative programmes do exist, as is evident in the Hong Kong Philharmonic concert Antarctic Journey. But there are many things to be done to draw a hesitant audience to a journey of unfamiliar music.

Hong Kong Philharmonic plays Vaughan Wiliams' Sinfonia Antartica

The stunning pictures, taken by Herbert Ponting on the expedition, sometimes filled the void between the music and human imagination of the icy continent.

One thing the orchestra did in the concert on January 18 was incorporate music into visual displays of photographs taken from the Antarctic expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, going along with the gigantic Symphony No. 7 Sinfonia Antarctica of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The orchestra also invited Dr. Rebecca Lee, Hong Kong’s very own polar explorer, to read excerpts from Scott’s exploration diaries during breaks within the music.

But before the audience saw the vivid Antarctic pictures on two erected giant screens at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, they lived through two relative rarities. Arnold Bax’s Tintagel is the English composer’s best known symphonic poem, depicting the lone Tintagel Castle of Cornwall battled by the summer Atlantic waves. David Atherton, the longtime Hong Kong Philharmonic music director, would have found the orchestra completely different from the one he performed the work some 20 years ago: the orchestra on stage was disciplined and responsive. Although the poem sounded a bit too coarse, it was well versed and a very attractive opener.

Some may be surprised to know that the orchestra had performed the Cantus Articus before as well, back in 2006. Einojuhani Rautavaara, the most eminent living Finnish composer, wrote his “concerto for birds” in 1972 and made a recording of calls from birds in the northerly Liminka, Finland to accompany the music. Playback of recording over live orchestral music is not rare, but not frequently used. The flock of birds, when heard above, surprised some of the unprepared audience. But this ornithological music is more approachable to that of Olivier Messiaen, where the bird calls where heard, notated and set against some of the most challenging harmony ever written. The broadness of music invited the listeners to prepare for the vast landscape at the other pole in the next half of the concert.

The use of pictures together with the music is a double-edged sword. Originally scored for the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic, Vaughan William put most of the film music to the five-movement Sinfonia Antarctica. The stunning pictures, taken by Herbert Ponting on the expedition, sometimes filled the void between the music and human imagination of the icy continent. Yet it was also, at times, distracting, pulling attention away from the vivid music with a dull Ken Burns effect aimlessly panning on the black and white photographs.

The limitation of the presentation, however, had little effect on the tension within. The careful curation of pictures, fitting into five movements of the symphony, was extremely effective. The white grotto that dwarfed Terra Nova, the polar ship that Scott journeyed to the south, was stunningly juxtaposed with the slow outward zoom of a man on the tip of the giant Matterhorn Iceberg, fading the man to a small dot on an immense vastness. The low organ pedal blasting through only made the drama more intense and breathtaking. When a picture of a close-up of a severely frostbitten hand was shown on the screen in the last movement, there was a hush from the audience.

Particularly praiseworthy was Dr. Lee, not only because of the weightiness of the words coming from an Antarctica explorer herself, but also her skilful narration vividly and emphatically delivered.

Particularly praiseworthy was Dr. Lee, not only because of the weightiness of the words coming from an Antarctica explorer herself, but also her skilful narration vividly and emphatically delivered.

The eerily, bitterly word-free melodies were delivered by soprano Yuki Ip and the Hong Kong Children’s Choir and with this finale the evening reached its highest dramatic point. Dr. Lee, together with the orchestra’s chief officer Michael MacLeod, read from the diaries from Scott. Although they somehow interrupted the music, particularly so when the composer instructed a transition between the third and fourth movement without a pause, the reading justifiably augmented the drama, sometimes lightheartedly with the party’s diet, and eventually, portraying  hopelessness when the party was trapped by extreme blizzard and contemplated death. Particularly praiseworthy was Dr. Lee, not only because of the weightiness of the words coming from an Antarctica explorer herself, but also her skilful narration vividly and emphatically delivered. The orchestra stormed through some of the most difficult passages, particularly so, the wind section which delivered some soaring, beautiful solos.

It takes a lot of effort to make the general public, whatever their musical background, to step out of the frequently heard and accept challenges. In many aspects the orchestra has been very successful this time. These efforts have made this musical exploration work and worthy.

 

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