Highs and lows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am

This year saw Hong Kong moving another step closer to realising the West Kowloon Cultural District development, with all of its major management appointments now in place. Leading the pack is chief executive Graham Sheffield, who was artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London for the past 15 years. Lars Nittve, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm between 2001 and 2010, will take up his post as executive director of its visual culture complex M+ next month, while former chief executive of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council Louis Yu Kwok-lit is executive director for the performing arts.

Public consultation on the three masterplans for the district designed by architects Norman Foster from Britain, Rem Koolhaas from the Netherlands and Rocco Yim Sen-kee from Hong Kong ended last month. The decision on which model will be adopted is expected to be made by the end of the first quarter of next year.

In the meantime, the local arts scene continues to bubble along, with particular strong showings in both classical music and opera.

Classical music

Mobile phones may well be chirruping less during classical concerts, but texting is on the increase, clapping at injudicious moments continues, and the practice of admitting latecomers between movements periodically rears its head with all the sensitivity of a rhino's rump.

Tardy ticket-holders at the Emerson String Quartet's recital in June at least provided a welcome diversion from the disappointing action on stage; but those at the City Chamber Orchestra's delightful airing of Poulenc's Sinfonietta last month did not.

It would be only a touch outrageous to say that the most consistent aspect of this year's classical concert scene has been the standard of the programme notes. The rosette goes to Marc Rochester, supplier to the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, who continues to bind his interesting commentary with a fluent prose style imbued with a certain lyricism.

At the Hong Kong Arts Festival opener, and with the great and the good in attendance, the pressure seemed to be on the Philharmonic to produce the goods in Bruckner's Symphony No 8. Edo de Waart obliged with a grasp of the work and an orchestral sound that were both roundly absorbing. In contrast, the Mariinsky Orchestra's closing concerts under Valery Gergiev struggled to come up to snuff, not helped by the horn section's shameless chatting and looking at watches during Shostakovich's Symphony No 7, Leningrad.

The city enjoyed a steady stream of big names as concerto soloists or recitalists. Premiere Performances continued its sterling work in promoting artists with bright futures, while the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong gave us veteran percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who confirmed she's still an infectiously energetic performer of the highest order. The pieces she played, however, were less stellar. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta's Percussion Fantastic, featuring Martin Grubinger, produced one of the highlights of the year, with director Yip Wing-sie exercising an unfussy authority, the orchestra absolutely on song and Grubinger on dazzling form in two unfamiliar contemporary pieces. His acrobatic encore defied description.

Courtesy of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Krystian Zimerman's piano recital confirmed his reputation as a world leader in his art, marrying colour and technique to perfection, while cellist Mischa Maisky teamed up with his pianist daughter Lily in what was probably the most faultlessly delivered recital of the year, almost to the point of wondering if a dash of spontaneity might have been worth the risk.

The Asian Youth Orchestra celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Coliseum, uniting past and present members in a gargantuan performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. But not even that level of showmanship could outdo the powerfully mature reading of Mahler's Symphony No 5 that director James Judd coaxed from his young Asian tigers the previous evening at the Cultural Centre.

Andrew Simon has been principal clarinet of the Hong Kong Philharmonic for some 20 years and his performance with the orchestra of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in June was simply stunning in its detailed intimacy; if his interpretation hasn't already been recorded, it should be. The same programme had Alexander Lazarev directing Shostakovich's Symphony No 11 with a profound understanding of the work's terrain, both in contour and detail; it's doubtful that the viola section had ever been shunted into such a twilight zone of soft dynamics before.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra may have to be more careful with its book-keeping, as recommended by the Director of Audit, but its diverse programming - from The Music World of Animation to Genghis Khan: A Choral Symphony - continued to draw audiences of all ages.

Glancing over the programmes for 2011, a number catch the eye. Vadim Repin returns to perform Brahms' Violin Concerto with the Hong Kong Phil; anyone who recalls his transforming interpretation of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the orchestra a few seasons ago won't want to miss this one.

The City Chamber Orchestra continues to explore musical byways in a programme featuring the theremin (if you don't know it, YouTube will oblige), while Premier Performances promises a line-up from the younger generation of blockbuster recitalists in Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Yevgeny Sudbin (piano) and Nicola Benedetti (violin). Even if some of the works on offer don't immediately sound up your street, the Arts Festival concerts given by the Halle Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra are to be missed only if you have a supreme CD collection to keep you at home.

Dance and opera

The Hong Kong Dance Company started the year in style with a revival of artistic director Leung Kwok-shing's spectacular Snow Fox, Chinese dance at its breathtaking best. Yang Yantao explored intriguing new dance ideas in the thoughtful Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, Leung's Poet Dongpo failed to bring life to one of Chinese literature's most remarkable figures. After years of gracing the stage with her lyrical and dramatic ability, principal dancer Su Shu moved to the post of dance master. Tang Ya looks set to be a worthy successor and other up-and-coming dancers such as Xu Qiang and Mi Tao also made a strong impression.

Hong Kong Ballet, too, got off to a strong start with Yuri Ng Yue-lit and Yuh Egami's The Firecracker. Witty, inventive and touching, this is a work that speaks directly to local audiences and deserves to become a staple of the repertoire. A welcome revival of Ronald Hynd's delightful Coppelia saw the farewell performance of some of the company's longest-serving dancers. The gaps left by these and other departures were clear in a disappointing new production of The Sleeping Beauty. With a wave of new dancers joining, this is a period of change for the company and it will be interesting to see how it looks a year from now.

The City Contemporary Dance Company ended the year on a high note with Xing Liang's Six Degrees, visually stunning and a breakthrough for Xing as a choreographer. Helen Lai Hoi-ling paid tribute to author Eileen Chang in Tales of Two Cities, which reflected the darkness at the heart of Chang's work and featured an electrifying performance by Qiao Yang as the writer. Mui Cheuk-yin's Love, Accidentally was episodic but fun.

On the independent dance scene, Justyne Li Sze-yeung and Wong Tan-ki stood out, especially in September's Galatea & Passenger.

A high point of the year was the return of the incomparable Mariinsky Ballet, whose dazzling Don Quixote showed is remains the benchmark for classical ballet - spectacle, style, virtuosity and passion.

The programmes presented by two other distinguished visiting companies, Dutch National Ballet (also for the Arts Festival) and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, did not show them at their best.

Opera lovers had plenty to sing about. Opera Hong Kong did some of its best work yet. A superlative production of Puccini's La Boheme brought together singing, acting and direction of world-class standards and the company's continuing partnership with Le French May scored a hit with a well-performed version of Massenet's Manon.

Lo King-man's Cantonese-dialogue production of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment was enjoyable if uneven.

Local audiences also had the opportunity to experience opera of the highest international level through the New York Metropolitan Opera's award-winning The Met: Live in HD season on the big screen.

January brings a last chance to see the Merce Cunningham Company on its farewell tour of the world following the death last year of its founder, one of the leading names in contemporary dance for more than six decades. Another company which lost its hugely influential choreographer last year, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, appears in the Arts Festival in March.

The 2011 festival includes two milestone premieres: the Hong Kong debut of New York City Ballet, one of the world's top companies, and the first-ever staging in the city of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in a production by Leipzig Opera.


On the theatre front, highlights include productions of contemporary English plays, whether it's the powerful though Anglocentric Orphans from Dennis Kelly, staged by the Hong Kong Players, or Theatre du Pif's equally emotionally gripping Knives in Hens by Scottish playwright David Harrower.

Insane in the Brain, a 'street dance version' of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from Swedish company Bounce, proved a surprise hit. With sparse dialogue, the show was able to convey all the emotions of this poignant piece through dance, gravity-defying movement/stunts and music.

Several touring musicals passed through town this year, including the return of Chicago in May, Grease, Merchant of Bollywood and High School Musical Live on Stage - all were real crowd pleasers.

The Arts Festival put its spotlight on drama this year, showcasing 10 dramatic and musical productions, three of which are Asian premieres and four new works. The Truth About Lying, a new commission, confirmed Wong Wing-sze as one of this city's most promising playwrights. The festival should be commended for its continuous commitment in nurturing up-and-coming local talents.

Veteran director Fredric Mao Chun-fai's The Liaison, a reinterpretation of Cantonese opera classic The Legend of the Purple Hairpin, was a visual treat but lacked passion.

The Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province treated local kunju fans to two fantastic productions: the aesthetically scrumptious The Story of Jade Hairpin directed by Pai Hsien-yung, and a Sino-Japanese version of Chinese opera classic The Peony Pavilion in which kabuki master Bando Tamasaburo gave a mesmerising performance.

Hong Kong Cantonese theatre remained stuck in the humdrum, with few outstanding productions to speak of. Kearen Pang Production's adaptation of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia was disappointing despite having veteran actors Lee Chun-chow and Alice Lau Ngar-lai in the cast. Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Dr Faustus and French playwright Yasmina Reza's Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) also failed to impress.

Zuni Icosahedron, however, successfully breathed new energy into its seven-year satirical series East Wing West Wing not only with new cast members but also a much tighter pace. Directed by Mathias Woo Yan-wai, East Wing West Wing 9 - Sap Dai Kau Goon poked fun at government officials with a number of gags - the ones based on the Hollywood hit Inception and on Steve Jobs' presentation of the iPhone 4 were particularly funny and memorable.

Looking ahead, until a more competitive funding system for government-subsidised performing arts companies, particularly in theatre, is in place, the more adventurous and cutting-edge works are likely to be found in the English-language amateur theatre scene and, of course, during the Arts Festival next February and March.