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Hong Kong Arts Festival 2017

Review: Gainsbourg Symphonic with Jane Birkin - lightweight pop tunes overblown, sounding like a soundtrack in search of a movie

French composer Serge Gainsbourg’s songs have been championed by his widow for 50 years, but it’s debatable whether they merit the lush orchestral treatment given them here

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 12:37pm

Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first. Yes, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra did, indeed, perform Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus, and no, Jane Birkin did not attempt to recreate the vocal part that led to Serge Gainsbourg’s most famous song being described as “the pop equivalent of an Emmanuelle movie”.

It wasn’t listed in the programme, and was played as part of an instrumental interlude that sounded as though it might have been intended originally as an overture, but was played as an encore before Birkin returned to the stage for her final song.

Twenty-one of Gainsbourg’s songs were arranged for voice and orchestra by pianist Nobuyuki Nakajima, and Birkin brought to her interpretations her unique sympathy with the words and music of her former husband. They separated in 1980 and he died in 1991.

She does not have an exceptional voice, but nobody sings Gainsbourg with more commitment or sensitivity to his lyrics. After all, she has been performing his music now for almost 50 years.

This is the second Gainsbourg tribute she has brought to the Hong Kong Arts Festival, a previous show, Arabesque, having featured in the 2004 programme. The point of this one was giving Gainsbourg’s music the full orchestral treatment – and the results were mixed.

As Tim Wong pointed out, slightly defensively, in his programme notes, “For those outside of France it is often difficult to understand the scale of Gainsbourg’s iconic status in his home country”, where he was considered “a musical genius”.

On the basis of the lightweight pop tunes in this programme that reputation is, indeed, quite difficult to understand, and Nakajima’s lush, melodramatic orchestrations often seemed overblown. Many of the arrangements sounded like soundtrack music in search of a movie.

The songs seemed to me to work best when the arrangements were sparsest. Particularly affecting was the melancholy Une Chose Entre Autres, set largely as a conversation between voice, piano and violin. Concertmaster Jing Wang’s obbligato was a musical highlight of the evening, and Birkin was sufficiently moved at the end of the song to kiss his hand. In contrast, a trumpet obbligato on Ballade de Johnny Jane seemed jarringly inappropriate.

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While the slow ballads were sensitively performed there were tunes, notably Requiem Pour Un Con, which required the orchestra, conducted spiritedly by Didier Benetti, to swing, and it never quite rose to the challenge.

Some of Gainsbourg’s lyrics were helpfully printed in the programme in both French and English, and not all have stood the test of time well.

Wong’s notes quoted late French president Francois Mitterand as calling Gainsbourg “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire”, which seems overly generous on the basis of a couplet such as “Dépression au-dessus du jardin/Ton expression est du chagrin” translated as “Depression over the garden/Your expression is one of chagrin”, which is doggerel in either language.

It was also perhaps a little coy to translate Requiem Pour Un Con as Requiem For an Idiot. The French for idiot is Idiot. “Con” means something else entirely.

Gainsbourg Symphonic was presented over two nights, the first almost sold out and the second entirely so. The first night, which I attended, was enthusiastically applauded, and there were some musically affecting moments. Generally, though, the orchestrations seemed to me to serve mostly to highlight the limitations of the songs.

Gainsbourg Symphonic with Jane Birkin, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: March 3