Hong Kong’s 2016 arts highlights: countdown clock flap, HKPhil maestro’s New York job, some sublime Shakespeare and Wicked

Fuss over Hong Kong artists projecting a countdown to 2047 onto ICC provided biggest drama, Jaap van Zweden’s recruitment by New York Philharmonic and Palace Museum for arts hub were big news, and top-class troupes marking 400 years since Bard’s death provided performing arts highlight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 10:47am

The year began with news of the appointment of Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, to head the New York Philharmonic, succeeding Alan Gilbert. The Dutch conductor will serve as the prestigious ensemble’s music director designate in the 2017–18 season. It was subsequently announced van Zweden’s contract with the HKPhil had been extended to 2022.

It was a year without much high drama bar a light installation by visual artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam that turned Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commercial Centre (ICC) in West Kowloon, into a giant timer counting down to July 1, 2047 during a visit to the city by senior Chinese leader Zhang Dejiang in May. This was a statement about the city’s anxiety over the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” formula for its governance.

The Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which presented the exhibition for which the installation was commissioned, later issued a statement, saying that the two artists changed the title of their work (from Our 60-second friendship begins now to Countdown Machine) without consulting them or the show’s curator.

This “disrespect”, the council said, “put at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space”.

Theatre

One of the best original local dramas this year was a Hong Kong Arts Festival commission. Chinese Lesson, written and directed by Tang Chi-kin, is a timely and relevant exploration of the psyche of Hong Kong millennials in the wake of the 2014 Occupy protests that blocked key thoroughfares for 79 days. Witty and mature, this piece looks at how young people today can still learn life lessons from ancient Chinese wisdom and virtues.

Less successful was Tang Shu-wing’s Cantonese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, also part of the Arts Festival, which suffered from miscasting.

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was marked in style by visits from two of Britain’s leading theatre companies, a rare opportunity for Hong Kong to experience the Bard’s work performed at the highest level.

Arts review: Henry IV, Part II and Henry V – skilful portrayals by versatile cast

The Royal Shakespeare Company brought Gregory Doran’s masterly productions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V (as part of the Arts Festival) with a top-notch cast led by Antony Sher’s magnificent Falstaff.

From the Globe Theatre came Jonathan Mundy’s brilliantly imagined reading of The Merchant of Venice, with Jonathan Pryce heart-rending in the title role.

Hong Kong-based stage director/actor Candice Moore returned after completing a master’s degree in London and staged The Elephant Song at the Fringe Club. The well paced and intense drama demonstrated once again that the Scottish director is an excellent storyteller with a good sense of timing.

On the musical front, Wicked has to be one of the best touring productions that has come to Hong Kong in recent years. The singing, the set and the costumes are world-class. Catch it while you still can; it will play at the Academy for Performing Arts’ Lyric Theatre for most of January.

Dance

The Hong Kong dance scene saved its best for last in 2016, with Anh Ngoc Nguyen’s dazzling Mother, I Am Sorry presented by the City Contemporary Dance Company in December.  Other high points included Dominic Wong’s Little Pieces, also for CCDC; Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camellias at Hong Kong Ballet; Helen Lai’s While the Dream Unfolds for Hong Kong Dance Company and Dick Wong’s The Rite of Spring for Zuni Icosahedron.

 The CCDC had a strong year. In addition to the outstanding works by Nguyen and Wong, there was a good new piece from Noel Pong, Leaving & Living and the crop of young Hong Kong dancers who joined the company a couple of years ago continued to make good progress. Only a highly anticipated new production from Sang Jijia, Fragile Beauty, failed to live up to expectations. 

Away from the stage came sad news with the untimely deaths of two company luminaries: much loved and respected assistant artistic director Ringo Chan and one of its finest former dancers, Michael Lopez.  They will be missed. 

On a happier note, Dominic Wong has been appointed assistant artistic director and it will be exciting to see what he brings to the troupe in this new role.

Change is in the air at Hong Kong Ballet, too, with the announcement that artistic director Madeleine Onne will leave next June, after eight years, to take up a position in the United States.

Two entertaining additions to the repertoire, Lady of the Camellias and Fei Bo’s Shenren Chang, look set to be crowd-pleasers, although Edward Liang’s dismal Sacred Thread was a dud. 

The annual Choreographers’ Showcase featured some promising work and there were solid performances of Swan Lake and Serenade.  The ensemble’s technical standards remain admirably high, especially for the men – among those who stood out were Ryo Kato, in an exceptional debut as Prince Siegfried and Hong Kong’s own Leung Chun-long, who made impressive progress in both acting and technique.

 At Hong Kong Dance Company, the bold decision to invite Helen Lai to create her first piece for the company, While the Dream Unfolds, paid off handsomely, as this great choreographer brought out new facets of the dancers while paying tribute to Chinese literature in her inimitable fashion.

The laudable 8/F Platform series celebrated its 10th anniversary with a diversity of work from Hong Kong and abroad, including a spirited tribute to the traditional lion dance from Daniel Yeung.  However, two large-scale productions, a re-run of Yang Yuntao’s Storm Clouds and his new martial arts comics based Chinese Hero, A Lone Exile, while strong on visual impact, were weak on narrative and choreography.

On the contemporary front, Dick Wong’s The Rite of Spring combined intriguing ideas, impressive dancing and imaginative visual effects.  E-Side Dance continued to showcase a wide range of work by local and overseas choreographers as did the annual i-Dance Festival. 

 Best of the year’s international programmes were Akram Khan with the superbly performed Until the Lions and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s lively A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring delightfully musical choreography by Liam Scarlett.

Other ballet visitors were disappointing – Mikhailovsky Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty had gorgeous designs and some good dancing but Nacho Duato’s pastiche of classical choreography wasn’t a patch on the Petipa original.

Both Carlos Acosta’s A Classical Farewell and the St Petersburg Ballet’s Swan Lake revolved around a big star in a different league to the surrounding dancers, the balletic equivalent of setting diamonds in plastic instead of platinum.

Classical music

Hong Kong’s classical music scene continued to grow in scope and sophistication in 2016, though there are a few nagging issues, such as the lack of venues with fine acoustics. A recent visit to the Shanghai Concert Hall gave a vivid reminder of what a comfortable, aesthetically and acoustically pleasing hall is like.

 However, much was right, from solo to orchestral music, and from local to international performers.

 Soloists who linger in the memory include cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan in his luminous Hong Kong debut and Richard Galliano playing colourful accordion and bandoneon with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. That concert was also Jean Thorel’s last concert as the orchestra’s conductor; he will be missed.

 Pianists had a good year too. Stephen Hough’s recital included his own Piano Sonata III plus a terrific set of Liszt pieces, and Louis Schwizgebel played Haydn and an astonishing version of Schubert’s Erlkönig. Sheryl Lee and Angela Au played a sparkling duo piano recital with effortless virtuosity and fun, despite the state of the pianos at City Hall. Lee said: “When Angela Au and I gave our two-piano recital in May, I was rather surprised that both pianos were in such a poor state. They were very old pianos and they felt like polar opposites, from timbre and touch to clarity. It is definitely time for a major upgrade.” 

Premiere Performances of Hong Kong’s 7th International Chamber Music Festival was its best yet, anchored by the venerable Emerson String Quartet and the warm, elegant playing of pianist Jon Kimura Parker. The 8th season of the event, in January, will be a much-anticipated landmark for the organisation and Hong Kong audiences.

Over the course of the academic year, the University of Hong Kong offers a series with unusual programming in its acoustically excellent Grand Hall. The Szymanowski Quartet with guest pianist Mary Wu was a good example, playing works by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz and Hong Kong composers.

 The Hong Kong Sinfonietta made its first tour to Taiwan this year with Hong Kong composer Chan Hing-yan’s new piece Ethereal is the Moon and Colleen Lee as piano soloist in Ravel’s Concerto in G. Earlier in 2016 Sinfonietta violinist James Cuddeford conducted the beautiful Haydn symphony Le Matin from the concertmaster’s seat, and conductor Yip Wing-Sie led a powerful Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss.

 The Hong Kong Arts Festival made a splash with the Concerto Copenhagen’s Watermusic, a finely detailed programme of Baroque music, and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with notable singing by tenor Giorgio Berrugi and orchestral playing of luscious tone.

 The Philadelphia Orchestra was the best visiting ensemble. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Brahms Symphony No 2 with magical richness of sound.   

 The Hong Kong Philharmonic continued to astonish and delight, and word has got out. Music director van Zweden becomes music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, but will continue working in Hong Kong until at least 2022.

Its programme featured a stunning performance of Die Walküre, the second part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Its rendering of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony was described by SCMP.com’s reviewer as both forceful and intimate.

 A telling indication of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s rising status is the number of players leaving excellent orchestras to join it – ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the St Louis Symphony to name a few. Another positive is the number of talented Hong Kong players who studied abroad and could work anywhere but are electing to return and play with their hometown orchestra.

Visual arts

Visual arts in Hong Kong have largely been in a holding pattern over the last 12 months amid a general retail downturn and the city’s highly strung social and political atmosphere.

There have been no major changes in the number or range of commercial galleries operating, and the construction and renovation of new public spaces is continuing. There is, however, a marked divide between the rhythms of the commercial art scene and efforts by artists to organise their own art events.

Due to limited opportunities for Hong Kong artists to join a gallery’s stable and galleries’ sensitivity about controversial and political issues, there is renewed enthusiasm for artists and curators to run their own exhibitions. Not since the late 1990s with the arrival of 1aspace, Para/Site Art Space, and Artist Commune have we had such artist initiatives. Now 100ftPARK, Floating Projects, Things that Can Happen, Neptune and Holy Motors have joined existing spaces C&G Artpartment, Spring, Videotage and the Goethe Institut’s gallery in being more receptive to hosting experimental art, performance, sound and video.

Curator initiatives, particularly by Andre Chan and Enoch Cheng, have also used a variety of temporary spaces in which to exhibit.

Using a similar strategy, art activist Sampson Wong Yu-hin and fellow artist Jason Lam’s participation in a Hong Kong Arts Development Council-funded exhibition allowed a supposed “countdown to 2047” into a long video that they projected onto the ICC tower during a visit by Chinese official Zhang Dejiang. However, it was not the video and its mild political message, but the overreaction of organisers in pulling the work from the exhibition that created greater publicity.

There is a palpable feeling, in line with overseas commercial trends, that many of the city’s galleries gear their exhibition programming around participation in art fairs. Art Basel Hong Kong has successfully built itself an aura of art market importance, and the synergy of other satellite art fairs and auction houses reinforces that story.

Costs for the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District have ballooned with the government’s insistence they include non-arts underground infrastructure and services for the nearby MTR lines.

The M+ museum remains on target to open in 2019. In the meantime, the newly opened M+ Pavilion offers a smaller exhibition space on site. Its unveiling featured a solo exhibition by Hong Kong’s 2015 representative to the Venice Biennale, Tsang Kin-wah.

From Venice to Vancouver, Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah spreads words of wisdom

An independent investigation commissioned by funders the Hong Kong Jockey Club revealed that the partial collapse of one of the heritage buildings at the former Central police station in April was due to a contractor’s inappropriate intervention. A statutory report from the Buildings Department due in early 2017 will recommend further action and confirm a rumoured opening date of November 2017, including the arts galleries designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron.

The most inspiring artists’ exhibitions of 2016 included: Anish Kapoor’s sculpture (Gagosian); Alan Kwan Tsz-wai and Kenny Wong Chi-Chuen’s video installations (Pearl Lam Galleries); Luke Ching Chin-wai’s pinhole photographs (Gallery Exit); Eason Tsang Ka-wai’s installation (Blindspot Gallery) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s travelling film exhibition (Para Site).

Sculptor Anish Kapoor on sex, race, big art and Brexit

But the current zeitgeist is best seen in Konstantin Bessmertny’s virtuoso exhibition now on at the Macau Museum of Art.

His withering parody attacks the art market’s primary interest in money over art, fuelled by the privileged and corrupt and their excesses. Despite all that, it is a surprisingly optimistic and wonderfully energetic exhibition.