City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
HK City Hall Concert Hall
Reviewed: November 30
Hayley Westenra had her first break at the age of 14, and it was a big one. Signed by Decca Records for her crystalline soprano tones and girl-next-door personality, the teenager's first disc, Pure, marketed the sort of sound that everyone and their grandma could nuzzle up to, becoming the fastest selling debut album in the history of the British classical charts.
The combination of a charming persona, voice, and songs that were undemanding on the listener launched a career that has since netted sales of over four million albums. One also learned from the programme notes that the New Zealander is a favourite of the British royal family, having performed for the queen no fewer than four times.
Now 26, Westenra was giving her first Hong Kong performance, with backing from the Hong Kong Treble Choir, the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir and the City Chamber Orchestra. A lot should have happened in those intervening 12 years, but one was repeatedly brought back to the vexing thought that not much had.
The performance started 15 minutes late, with last-minute sound checks greeting the audience. Each of the 22 items melted into one another with limited contrast in either content or delivery, although some deft orchestral arrangements showcased several neat solos from concertmaster Gilbert Sak. Guest conductor Colin Touchin kept the ball rolling between items and the ensemble tight.
Westenra was over-amplified much of the time, at least from the front stalls, where the choirs' contribution looked wonderful but was largely inaudible. Her spoken links between songs were disjointed and self-conscious; her body language was unimaginative and facial expressions repetitive.
While the hallmark purity of Westenra's voice never faltered, the packaging was monochrome. Singing louder and softer doesn't count as great artistry and, as if to prove the point, the one moment in the evening when everyone pricked up their ears was during her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which was a gem of a performance, as opposed to pleasant note-spinning.
The difference between the two separates the stars from the superstars. Hopefully, she'll bridge that gap before the next 12 years have elapsed.