Journeys to the west

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am

MANY ORCHESTRAS AND dance companies tour abroad to be assessed by new critics and larger audiences. That's why the Hong Kong Sinfonietta hits the road on Friday for a series of festivals and concerts in Reims, France, Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania, and Warsaw until August 11. And the Hong Kong Ballet is embarking on its first tour of Spain, between August 15 and September 5, with dates at the Santander International Festival and in Madrid.

These government-subsidised companies often receive better reviews and more standing ovations overseas than they do at home, and the artists are keen to demonstrate and hone their talent on the road. 'For every professional orchestra, going on tour helps build its reputation in other countries,' says the Sinfonietta's music director and conductor, Yip Wing-sie. 'But touring is also good training for the musicians. There's a lot of cultural exchange going on when we're in another country, especially when we take part in festivals. We watch and learn from other participating ensembles and musicians.'

Over the next week, the orchestra will perform in three festivals: Les Flaneries Musicales d'Ete de Reims; Vilnius' International Christopher Summer Festival; and the Pazaislis Music Festival in Kaunas. It will be the Sinfonietta's third tour since it first hit the road in 2001.

Yip says she's devised a challenging programme for a 30-strong chamber-size orchestra to perform at all the venues, which offer different acoustics and facilities. The pieces include: Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, Set III; Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K488; Chan Hing-yan's There's Something in the Wind ... and Stravinsky's demanding Pulcinella Suite. In the absence of a concert grand piano at the Vilnius venue, the Mozart concerto will be replaced by recitals by the two Chinese instrumental soloists. Young French pianist Helene Couvert, dizi player Chu Siu-wai and sheng player Loo Sze-wang will also tour with the orchestra. Couvert will perform in the Sinfonietta's pre-tour concert in Hong Kong on Thursday, while European audiences can hear Chan's compositions.

'This is the kind of exchange we aim to foster through touring,' says Yip. 'One of the aims of the Sinfonietta is to showcase home-grown talents locally and internationally.' She says the tour will bring the orchestra closer together because the musicians will travel, work and live together for an intensive period. Concertmaster Elizabeth Lo Ka-yi, who toured with the orchestra last year, says she's looking forward to performing in an eastern European country that's steeped in classical traditions. 'The visit will broaden our horizons, not only musically but also culturally,' she says. 'To be physically there to feel their culture will be very special.'

Yip says she's looking forward to performing at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall. 'It has a long history and is the home of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra,' she says. 'When we perform there, we feel we can't let anyone down, so everyone will have to be focused and do their best. But this kind of pressure helps maintain the orchestra's well-being.'

The Hong Kong Ballet's tour began when Spanish promoters EuroArte flew out to watch the troupe perform in Hong Kong last year. They obviously liked what they saw. The ballet is booked for seven performances each of The Last Emperor and Turandot this year, and a second tour is planned for January.

Artistic director Stephen Jefferies says it's further proof that his policy of staging two original full-length ballets each year (a feat almost unheard of in the ballet world) has fulfilled its objective of getting the company invited abroad.

'It's the lifeblood of the company, to become a solid international touring company,' he says. This can be achieved only by having something different to offer - hence, the need for a unique repertoire.

The new ballets - many on Chinese themes - have had mixed reactions in Hong Kong, but have been well-received on tours of Europe and North America.

'In Europe, they have many great classical companies,' says principal dancer Jin Yao, who toured frequently with her previous company, the National Ballet of China. 'There's no point going there with a ballet like Swan Lake, which they perform so well themselves. As an Asian company, taking an Asian-themed or Chinese-themed ballet is the only way to attract attention.'

Jin says overseas audiences are more open to new work than those in Hong Kong or on the mainland. They're also warmer, and the Hong Kong dancers are looking forward to the standing ovations they received on previous tours - an experience that's all too rare for them at home.

Jefferies says he often toured Spain as a dancer, but audiences' responses there cut both ways. 'They can be quite brutal,' he says. 'I remember getting booed there with the Royal Ballet. They want value for their money - and quite right, too. So we have to be on tiptop form. Everything is in the planning and preparation, and making sure we're on top of things.'

This includes the return to Hong Kong of choreographers Wayne Eagling and Natalie Weir to work with the dancers before the tour. Jefferies says performers gain confidence from touring.

'The name of this game is 99 per cent confidence,' he says. 'Without that, it's a dark pit. With every tour, you can see the dancers growing in confidence. The excitement of touring is always a buzz, and a boost to their morale. The spirit of the company becomes closer, and they get more chance to develop on stage because they get more performances.'

Dealing with a tour's problems 'makes you grow up', says Jin. She says she's looking forward to touring with the Hong Kong Ballet. 'Everyone is so nice - it will be great to be together in a new country and become even closer as a team,' she says.

Jefferies says he's confident the company will get a good response. His pride in them is obvious. 'I just want to show the company for what it is: a unique Asian ballet company which has reached international level. I want to be able to show them off - to show off my beautiful dancers.'

Hong Kong Sinfonietta, pre-tour concert, Aug 4, 8pm, Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall, $100-$220, Inquiries: 2836 3336.