Watched, listened, yearned

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


This year saw several international names and acts landing in town: the New York City Ballet and Kevin Spacey - courtesy of the Hong Kong Arts Festival - the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as contemporary artists Damien Hirst, Zeng Fanzhi and Yang Fudong. But hype aside, how was the art itself?

Classical music

Of the performances from this year's classical music listings that could have happily accompanied one to a desert island, two were particularly memorable: Christian Tetzlaff's masterly intellectual grasp and technical delivery of J.S. Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin in May; and cellist Steven Isserlis' intensely moving October recital of works by Beethoven, Britten, Saint-Saens and Shostakovich. In both cases, one felt in the presence of the sum of a lifetime's sculpting of perfection.

Many orchestral concerts promised a knock-out on paper and while some delivered, the majority left a few skittles standing, often in the form of the concerto item. Both sides of the coin applied to conductor Lawrence Renes' two appearances with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in early September: the first paired some wonderfully crafted Mozart (Symphony No41) and terrific Mahler (The Song of the Earth); a week later, Simon Trpceski's vacuous reading of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto sullied Renes' refreshing account of the same composer's Symphony No2.

With only three more programmes to go, Edo de Waart's tenure as artistic director and chief conductor of the Philharmonic has been petering out, matched by a wane in the impact of his interpretations. Kudos to those conductors who both put in the work and pull out the rabbit, especially those with touring orchestras who don't treat their appearance in the city as a bus-stop quickie.

Daniel Harding's all-Mahler programme with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in June springs to mind, particularly for his splendid account of the Symphony No4. Masaki Suzuki similarly justified his fine reputation in February's Hong Kong Arts Festival programme of cantatas by J.S. Bach, directing the meticulous singers and instrumentalists of his Bach Collegium Japan.

The City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong once again taught us to expect the unexpected in its unusual package of programmes, contrasting the other-worldly sounds of the theremin in April with the concerted pluck of six harps and orchestra in September.

Also in September, clarinettist Michael Collins elicited some unusually red-blooded string playing from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in a programme of Elgar, Finzi and Copland in which he served as both soloist and director. Earlier in the year, the orchestra's For the Love of Music concert might not have enjoyed the most imaginative title, but it pulled in a capacity house that was duly rewarded with a selection of stage songs featuring tenor Warren Mok and soprano Sabina Cvilak, who twirled entertainingly between the refined and the full-throated.

Opera Hong Kong has had better karma; one felt disappointed that their four-year labour of love, Dr Sun Yat-sen, was knee-capped by a Beijing diktat cancelling the premiere. On hearing the quality of the music on the opening night in Hong Kong, however, it was equally disappointing that the score didn't live up to its subject matter. Sam Olluver


This was a bumper year for overseas visitors in dance. Akram Khan's stunning one-man show, Desh, combined dance with theatre and was memorable for its emotional depth as well as Khan's magnificent dancing. Another production full of human warmth was David Bintley's classic comedy Hobson's Choice (for this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival), still a delight after 22 years and superbly performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet. The evergreen Momix Dance Theatre made a welcome return to thrill audiences of all ages with its mesmerising stage illusions and acrobatic feats in Momix Remix.

History was made by the Hong Kong debut of New York City Ballet. The dazzling technique, energy and attack for which its dancers are renowned did not disappoint. The high point of their two programmes was Alexei Ratmansky's scintillating Concerto DSCH, the first work by this major choreographer to be performed here.

Another historic moment was the farewell appearance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Nearly 90? One of the giants of modern choreography, Cunningham died in 2009 and his company would be disbanded following this final world tour in which Hong Kong had the good fortune to be included.

On the home front, at City Contemporary Dance Company Noel Pong Chi-kwan came into her own with her first full-length piece, Off Screen. This witty, imaginative treatment of how cinema makes audiences dream was a triumph from start to finish. The official retirement of Helen Lai Hoi-ling, often considered Hong Kong's finest choreographer, was marked by a new version of her gala programme Plaza X. It is to be hoped that her retirement will not be definitive.

High point of the year for the Hong Kong Dance Company was Leung Kwok-shing's Two Swallows, a tribute to mainland painter Wu Guanzhong. Exceptional music, design and dancing conjured up the essence of Wu's work.

Last year we wondered how Hong Kong Ballet would look in 12 months' time. The jury is still out after a low-key year during which it seemed a company in search of a clear direction. Programmes were mostly reruns, some impressive (Luminous, outstanding on its second appearance, Symphony in Three Movements), some less so. A commendable commitment to new work was rewarded with mainland choreographer Fei Bo's dramatic A Room of Her Own, with a powerful performance from Wu Fei-fei.

The annual dancers' choreographic workshop did not enjoy a vintage year but included a good piece by established talent Yuh Egami and a promising one from Ricky Hu. Impressive progress was made by several dancers including Hu, Li Jia-bo and Li Ming.

Away from the three major ensembles, Daniel Yeung Chun-kwong proved himself as creative as ever in his latest solo show, Dan's Exhibitionist, featuring his hallmark brilliant use of multimedia.

The Moment I Saw It, a duet created and performed by Hong Kong's Li Yong-jing and Lam Po at the Fringe Theatre, was a small gem, full of emotional resonance. Natasha Rogai


There appeared to be a lot more drama productions this year - in Cantonese, English and French - but quality remained highly uneven.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival presented two newly commissioned plays, Yan Yu's Jiao Qing and Harriet Chung Yin-sze's Recycling Times. While the former, directed by Chan Ping-chiu, was emotionally engaging - thanks to the performances of its two leads Chan Suk-yi and Lai Yuk-ching - director Ben Yuen Fu-wah failed to realise the surrealistic tone of Chung's writing.

The festival also brought us the Bridge Project's Richard III, headlining the two-time Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey. Directed by Sam Mendes, the production offered a contemporary interpretation of the Shakespeare classic and only the female cast, including Gemma Jones, Haydn Gwynne and Annabel Scholey, were able to hold their own in Spacey's formidable presence.

DV8 Physical Theatre returned to Hong Kong after a decade to stage Can We Talk About This?, a controversial piece of verbatim theatre that looks at religious attitudes, especially in Islam, towards homosexuality. It engaged the audience with its unique fusion of verbal and physical expression.

This year saw a great number of reruns, which is not necessarily a bad thing given most local drama productions get only a three-day run on average. Of those, Paul Poon Wai-sum's Cricket in My Life and Wong Wing-sze's Our Best of Youth in Cambrian were most memorable because of their quirky sense of humour and heartfelt writing.

On the English language theatre front, we bade farewell to Elizabeth Merendino and Paul Sheehan, two exceptional stage talents who left Hong Kong after brightening up the local theatre scene in recent years with their personality and magnetic stage presence. Kevin Kwong

Visual arts

Freedom of expression took centre stage on the Hong Kong visual arts scene this year. The catalyst was Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's detention by Beijing authorities for supposed taxation offences, which tested museums, dealers and art organisations who had long turned a blind eye to the mainland's human rights record but continued to engage in cultural exchanges.

Local officials condemned graffiti in support of Ai as vandalism and the police were directed to find the 'culprits' but criticised for wasting resources. In contrast, one of the biggest exhibitions, 'Memories of King Kowloon', daubed work by Hong Kong's original street artist, self-styled King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou-choi. In a rare coming together of the creative community, Art Citizens - a loose alliance of artists - in April organised support rallies, performances and exhibitions for Ai and a march attended by more than 3,000 people ended in a rally around the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.

The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) has made great strides thanks to an astute use of roving exhibitions and actually adopting good ideas from the public. A master plan for the cultural district (designed by Norman Foster and his team) will soon be presented for approval to the Town Planning Board. A brewing issue for the cultural district is its own governance alongside the individual cultural entities on the site. How does the M+ Museum govern itself? Will it have an independent board? What is its legal relationship with the WKCD Authority? This is actually a freedom of independence issue - how much independence is the government willing to give the WKCD Authority?

A consolidation in art galleries despite a fragile economic climate has seen many strong exhibitions during 2011. Gallery Exit has developed a particular aesthetic by predominantly exhibiting finely painted representational work. And Hanart Square's huge space in Kwai Hing has been revitalised by a retinue of younger artists.

Cat Street Gallery's raucous openings may have annoyed its Sheung Wan neighbours, but its adjacent gallery The Space has added a much-needed larger venue in Central. New galleries include Saamlung in Central and Spring in Wong Chuk Hang, which is now screening Fang Yudong's mammoth 21-metre-long black-and-white film The Fifth Night.

Cinema influenced two of the best exhibitions of the year. A contemporary interpretation of the 1960 film, The World of Suzie Wong, with an impressive storyboard installation by Vincent Fantauzzo at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and an exhibition of drawings, renditions and films from the 1900s by pioneering director Georges Melies in 'Magician of the Cinema' organised by Alliance Francaise - work that inspired French surrealism. John Batten