Spoilt for choice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


The Hong Kong Arts Festival 2012 reaches a milestone: it marks four decades in the business with an edition that will see some 160 paid performances and 140 free events at 53 venues between January 28 and March 8.

But being this city's biggest and oldest international arts festival also has its burden, especially since it still relies heavily on box office income while trying to be artistically diverse and innovative.

The budget for this year's festival is around HK$110 million: the government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust are guaranteeing HK$50 million, with the balance expected to be achieved through sponsorship and ticket sales.

Although a top-price ticket to hear the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (February 13-14) will set you back HK$1,680, there is a raft of 140 free-admission performances, rehearsals and workshops to be found under the Young Friends Scheme and in the majority of the Festival Plus events. These include: a masterclass by acclaimed dramatic soprano Karita Mattila (February 17); a talk by the Hamburg Ballet's artistic director John Neumeier (January 31); or quizzing performers from Japan's The Geisha of Gion (February 18).

The festival is also quick to point out that it is not just about presenting bouquets to household names, as exemplified by the 10 programmes involving a dozen world premieres by emerging artists. These include new works commissioned from Asian composers by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra for its Music About China VI concert on March 6.

Hong Kong theatre veteran Poon Wai-sum's Show Flat (February 16-28) is both a festival commission and a timely take on the local property market. On the dance scene, festival sponsorship has secured a new work from Taiwanese choreographer Chou Shu-yi: About Living receives its first performances alongside works by Japanese hip hop star Kentaro!! and the multi-talented Indonesian artist, Eko Supriyanto, as part of the Asia Pacific Dance Platform on March 2 and 3.

But it's the art of music that takes the lion's share of this year's line-up, offering world music, jazz and a range of classical concerts.

Western opera comes courtesy of Mozart's Cos? Fan Tutte (February 23-26), with Mark Wigglesworth and the Bavarian State Orchestra in the pit. Closer to home, 'The Golden Age of Cantonese Opera' (February 18-21) features local stars in revivals of pieces from the genre's colourful repertoire of the 1950s, including the full-length opera, Searching the Academy. 'It's in the traditional Chinese operas,' says Grace Lang, the festival's programme director, 'that we find the reigning themes of compassionate love and righteousness triumphing over hatred and wickedness, depicting the most treasured values in life.'

Big orchestral favourites by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bart?k are on offer from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Chung Myung-whun (February 13-14), whetting the appetite for Daniel Harding's direction of two programmes given by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on March 3 and 4, featuring Brahms' Double Concerto, Schubert's Symphony No9, Mahler's R?ckert-Lieder and Bruckner's Symphony No5.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta lets the imagination off the leash in 'La Valse Remembered' (February 25-26), opening with La Valse - Ravel's orchestral incarnation of the waltz - before giving it a second airing at the end of the evening, adorned with live stage action conceived by choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit.

Handel's choral music airs in two programmes from the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra directed by Harry Christophers (February 24-25) while L'Arpeggiata's acclaimed ensemble of period instrumentalists and vocal experts focuses on music from the late Renaissance and early baroque in a recital on February 2.

Chamber music is provided by the Paavel Haas Quartet's pair of programmes on February 24 and 25, Danjulo Ishizaka's cello recital the following evening and piano recitals comprising Paik Kun-woo's all-Ravel programme (February 11) and Martin Stadtfeld's performance of Book 1 of J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier on February 23.

Described as the Sahara's coolest rock band, Tinariwen's nomads-turned-rock musicians roll out their acclaimed sounds from North Africa at two concerts on March 1 and 2, while the latest developments in popular music from the mainland can be caught in 'China Folk Rock' (February 11-12).

The jazz scene is represented by multi-Grammy Award winner pianist-guitarist Dr John and the Lower 911 band (February 17-18).

British violinist Nigel Kennedy returns with a challenging programme on February 9 that makes the improbable swing between baroque and jazz, opening with music for unaccompanied violin by J.S. Bach before launching into his own arrangements of music by the legendary jazz giant Fats Waller, with guitar, bass and percussion combo in support.

On the theatre front, those looking for something alternative might want to check out Of Mountains and Seas. Chinese myths dating back more than two millennia and retold in Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian's play will be given a fantastical makeover by experimental theatre director Lin Zhaohua in a production incorporating music, movement and shadow puppetry in four shows (February 24-27).

Another thought-provoking work is Faith Healer (March 1-8), a haunting examination of the true price of belief by Irish playwright Brian Friel; this production from the UK's Bristol Old Vic company is directed by Simon Godwin. Those with a stronger constitution might be drawn to the emotional challenges of 4.48 Psychosis (February 22-25), Sarah Kane's autobiographical play portraying the crushing depression she experienced and written just 18 months before she committed suicide.

People who prefer more conventional entertainment have much to choose from, including Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which superbly weaves wit and social observation. The performances (February 2-5) are presented by the UK's Rose Theatre Kingston, with director Stephen Unwin guiding the improbable plot through the gamut of hilarity.

Dance meets theatre in the Monte-Carlo Ballet's take on Shakespeare's classic play A Midsummer Night's Dream in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Le Songe (February 29, March 2-3). Fairyland looks set to be challenged by Maillot's inventive choreography, which is billed as raucous, witty and acrobatic, while being complemented by the character of an outrageous floral matchmaker who uses an aphrodisiac spray.

The Hamburg Ballet will showcase a pair of signature pieces by its director and chief choreographer, Neumeier, renowned for his distillation of balletic tradition within a modern framework inspired by literature, poetry and music. Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler (January 31) and A Streetcar Named Desire (February 3-5) are towering works danced to the music of composing giants Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev and Alfred Schnittke.

Running from February 9-11, the Lyon Opera Ballet's three-work programme links Russian choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83), co-founder of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, with France's Benjamin Millepied, a more recent student and principal dancer with the same organisations. Millepied's Sarabande and This Part in Darkness precede Balanchine's Who Cares?, in which intricate choreography is set to music by George Gershwin.

Festival programme director Lang says world cultures, the education of mankind and an investigation of the illusions of life are themes linking this year's programmes across all the disciplines: 'The festival takes you to a world of magical power beyond explanation,' she says. 'In the human world, the arts unveil the sweetness and bitterness of humanity.'

For more details, call 2824 2430 or go to http://www.hk.artsfestival.org