All posts filed under: Classical Music Reviews

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Concert Hall, Hong Kong / Cultural Centre / Hong Kong / Jun 29, 2019 / Ernest Wan / Near the end of this 45th anniversary season of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, audiences were treated to a Finnish programme, performed by Finnish guest artists, that included the local premiere of the acclaimed Clarinet Concerto (2002) by prominent composer Magnus Lindberg.  Notwithstanding the characteristically sophisticated musical language, the Concerto is eminently accessible. It begins and ends in unambiguous, life-affirming C major, with a folk-like opening melody that recurs several times like an anchor of stability amid more changeable material. The orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä, featured a large battery of percussion instruments and produced a diverse range of enchanting colours, with solo clarinetist Kari Kriikku’s many tremolo passages adding much to the often shimmering effect. He had worked closely with the composer on the Concerto and given its first performance, and it was a marvel that he played almost non-stop in this 28-minute work with apparent ease, overcoming one hurdle after another along the way, from seemingly endless series of arpeggios to passages employing advanced techniques such as multiphonics …

São Paulo Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall / Hong Kong Cultural Centre / Feb 21, 2019 / Ernest Wan / This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival opened with the local debut of Brazil’s São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the US’s Marin Alsop, in her final season as its music director. Four works that are completely unrelated to one another made up the concert programme, presumably a showcase for the versatility of both orchestra and conductor. The tactic would have been more successful had the selection of works been better thought out. Prokofiev’s light, cheery neoclassical First Symphony (1917) began the concert and fared best, with various details clearly audible, thanks to the fine orchestral balance and the moderate tempi employed in all four movements. But the third of these, a gavotte, suffered from very mannered ritardandi on the upbeats, which greatly impeded the flow of the dance rhythm, a problem that was to resurface later in the evening. Next was Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1810s), with mainland China’s Ning Feng joining in as the soloist. His confidence in his mastery of the dazzling range …

Fung Lam, Teriver Cheung, Anthony Lai

Hong Kong Episodes (Re-run) / JC Cube, Tai Kwun / Hong Kong / Jan 26–28, 2019 / Ernest Wan / Hong Kong Episodes (Re-run) is a shorter, revised version of an October 2015 show that was conceived amid the social unrest in the city the previous year. The programme note describes the production as a “jazz-classical cross-over piece… accompanied by… video images”, but the visuals turn out to be just as important as the live music, if not more so. One reason is that the video depicts scenes with skyscrapers, housing estates, neon signs and people in a subway station, for instance, that are unmistakably Hong Kong — which makes it impossible not to take the title of the show seriously — whereas the music has about it nothing especially evocative of Hong Kong or, for that matter, any particular locale. Another reason is that the visuals, largely created by Anthony Lai, play with both time and space so effectively that the viewer’s attention is absorbed throughout. Among the eight “episodes”, each representing a three-hour period in a day, …

Jeremy Denk

Notes of Profundity / Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, University of Hong Kong / Hong Kong / Jun 1, 2018 / Ernest Wan / American pianist Jeremy Denk’s debut recital in the city, presented by the University of Hong Kong’s Cultural Management Office, is one of those unusual cases where a classical concert is given a title that is not merely a factual description of the programme, pressing certain preconceptions of the music on the audience rather than just letting them make their own minds up as they listen.  One can try in vain to find out from the programme notes what this recital’s title, Notes of Profundity, is intended to bring to mind. The words “deep”, “deeper”, “deepest”, “depth”, “profundity” and “profundities” appear nearly 30 times yet remain unexplained, as if we all already had an idea, and even agreed on, what musical or aesthetic “depth” is all about. Such an unhelpful attempt to sound profound is especially unfortunate as it must be anathema to Denk, a widely admired writer on music known for his lucid, engaging prose that deftly demystifies his subjects. Much of …

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre / Hong Kong / Jan 18, 2018 / Ernest Wan / In each of its past three concert seasons, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Jaap van Zweden, has presented one opera from Richard Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka the Ring Cycle. The plaudits that these concerts and the commercial recordings made of them have received meant there were high expectations for Götterdämmerung (1874), the fourth, longest and toughest work in the cycle. Happily, this final instalment did not disappoint. The orchestra, over a hundred strong, inevitably sometimes overwhelmed the solo singers, with the former just behind the latter on the stage. Daniel Brenna sounded youthful as the hero Siegfried should, but his voice and tone were wanting in power and focus respectively. As Gunther, the ruler of the Gibichung race, Shenyang had a sound that was dark and indistinct in Act One, but thereafter his voice opened up. By contrast, Eric Halfvarson sang with power and authority throughout, in a vivid and often frightening portrayal of the villain Hagen, Gunther’s half-brother. Peter Kálmán’s appearance as …

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Concert Hall / Hong Kong Cultural Centre / Apr 22, 2017 / Ernest Wan / Mahler’s Symphony No 6 constituted the bulk of this concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra with music director Jaap van Zweden – but the premiere of Conrad Tao’s swallow harbor that preceded it was just as interesting: a work inspired by Hong Kong is a rarity on the programmes of the city’s flagship ensemble. Born in Illinois to Chinese parents, the 22-year-old composer visits Hong Kong infrequently and, as he has said himself, his “portrait” of the city is based on his impressions during a short sojourn at the end of last year. Another influence, according to Tao, is Varèse’s early works, especially Amériques. In swallow harbor, there is no confluence, as one might expect, of western and eastern aesthetics à la Chou Wen-chung, a protégé of Varèse who is the grand dean of Chinese-American composers. Yet, sure enough, it employs a wide array of percussion instruments, begins with a sound incorporating a lion’s roar, from a friction drum, and abounds in fragmentary bursts of timbres and other explosive …