The 50 Hong Kong music, arts and stage highlights of 2015: our critics’ choice

Singin’ in the Rain, horse opera Cavalia, Gustavo Dudamel, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Beethoven cycle, the Bolshoi Ballet, Art Basel and Samson Young’s Sound Anchor among the top picks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 December, 2015, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 10:06am

Performing arts

Live entertainment comes in many forms and guises but the upside-down purple cow that has temporarily taken up residence at the Central Harbourfront has to be the most outlandish.

This Hong Kong debut of the Udderbelly Festival – an arts jamboree of 200 stage shows from around the world – is the perfect antidote to the political discords that are driving a wedge through the city, though the two-month long Edinburgh Festival Fringe-inspired theatre event could do with a boost in attendance. Popular British comedian and impressionist Rory Bremner, who usually commands full houses, came and went without creating as much as a tiny stir.

The past 12 months have seen a spike in live entertainment shows: Lunchbox Theatrical Productions alone presented seven, from the full-length musical Singin’ in the Rain to the more cosy La Soirée, all well received by audiences and critics alike. The Hong Kong Jockey Club brought to town Cavalia, an equine spectacular featuring 40 horses that camped out on the Central Harbourfront for a month in March and April.

Hong Kong Disneyland in November replaced The Golden Mickeys with the new musical Mickey and the Wondrous Book, featuring characters and popular songs from animations including The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Brave and, of course, Frozen. Production values are high and the set is technically sophisticated. Worth a look if you are already in the park.

One of my favourite live stage performances was PuppetCinema’s Planet Egg, which was part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Following an alien creature that is lost in space, all the action was streamed live onto a big screen. With its engaging narrative, this was family entertainment at its most heart-warming and intelligent.

Live entertainment will continue next year, with two major musicals – Jersey Boys and Wicked – scheduled to make their debut here.

Kevin Kwong

Classical music

Classical music in Hong Kong showed impressive building and development in 2015. Luckily this did not involve filling in the harbour or using giant cranes or jackhammers, just making beautiful sounds.

The calendar was crowded with a wealth of choices. Visiting stars from overseas set the level high. Local troupes – the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Sinfonietta and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong – continued to raise their standards.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra weathered a tense situation early in the year that ended with the removal of three principal string players.

Their 39th season opened with a performance with the National Chinese Orchestra of Taiwan and continued with a tour to Dalian, Wuhan and Shanghai in December. A programme for young artists called Capering Notes provided a venue for a beautiful bamboo flute recital by Yeung Wai-kit.

Smaller but key organisations such as the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and Premiere Performances of Hong Kong with its Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival added programmes and raised their profiles.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave a stunning performance of John Adams, Mahler and Dvorak as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Also with the Arts Festival, Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden performed a transcendent concert of German Romantic music. The National Youth Orchestra of the US gave a knock-out performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic continued to develop a signature sound consisting of silky strings, electric energy and expression, while etching the details of the score with clarity. When it all clicked, the Philharmonic had power and beauty any city would be proud of.

Their Beethoven Symphony Cycle was the event of the year, demonstrating that Beethoven’s music is unequalled and indispensable. Without Beethoven’s musical revolution, the works of Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and onward would be unthinkable.

Chamber music in the city flowered with an exciting festival presented by Premiere Performances Hong Kong in January. Avi Avital, mandolinist, was one of the soloists on their recital series, giving a vibrant interpretation of Baroque and folk music.

I didn’t quite hear my dream pianist in Hong Kong in 2015, although Yuja Wang’s Brahms Concerto No 2 with the Philharmonic, Plamena Mangova’s Tchaikovsky Concerto No 1 and Florian Uhlig’s Schumann Concerto with the Sinfonietta came close.

My favourite choral performance was Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the SingFest Choral Academy and the Sinfonietta.

The adventurous Hong Kong New Music Ensemble presented an ambitious set of performances, including a collaboration with New York’s celebrated Bang On a Can ensemble and a fine performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ritualistic Stimmung.

The HKNME’s Modern Academy, founded in 2014 with a grant from the Home Affairs Bureau, continued in 2015 with an intensive summer programme for young performers, composers and conductors.

A trip out to Tsuen Wan Town Hall proved worthwhile to hear a recital of 20th century masterpieces performed by Philharmonic principals Richard Bamping, Andrew Simon, Jing Wang and pianist Warren Lee. Messiaen’s harrowing Quartet for the End of Time is an event and this was a definitive version.

Also memorable were violinists Amelia Chan performing Vivaldi’s Winter and Charlie Siem playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.

Alexis Alrich

Dance

This year got off to a flying start for ballet lovers, with a run of six shows by the Bolshoi Ballet in the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

If Alexei Ratmansky’s Flames of Paris suited the company better than Balanchine’s Jewels, both gave audiences the chance to see many of the dazzling current crop of stars and enjoy some magnificent dancing.

The Bolshoi Opera were equally impressive in the Hong Kong premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, a spectacular production of this powerful work. Also in the Festival, Christopher Wheeldon’s much ballyhooed Cinderella with Dutch National Ballet was pretty but bland, lifted by the ravishing Anna Tsygankova’s performance in the title role. It was an excellent year for new work by local choreographers, among them Daniel Yeung Chun-kwong, Chen Jun, Yuh Egami, Ricky Hu, Lai Tak-wai and Nguyen Ngoc Anh.

City Contemporary Dance Company made a welcome return to form. Programmes included a rerun of a signature piece, Willy Tsao Shing-yuen’s 365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism and an excellent new triple bill, Eureka, of which Lai’s intricate, elegiac Overwhelming was the stand out.

Soledad, a new full-length work by the doyenne of Hong Kong choreographers, Helen Lai Hoi-ling, had mesmerising moments, notably some fiercely erotic duets. However, as a whole this collaboration with composer/performance artist Peter Suart was uneven, as was the other new full-length work, Noel Pong Chi-kwan’s Happy Birthday. The younger generation of dancers made strong progress, particularly Kelvin Mak, Ivan Chan and Natalie Mak.

Hong Kong Ballet’s mixed bill Paquita//Bolero/Carnival was notable for the Ballet’s first performance of a Ratmansky piece, the charming Carnival of the Animals, and for a stunning new version of Ravel’s Bolero choreographed by company members Egami and Hu. The latter was a brilliant interpretation that packed an intense emotional punch.

A new full-length Pinocchio had brilliant designs and Pär Isberg’s choreography showcased the company’s high standard of dancing, although the ballet was let down by a weak score and unclear narrative.

The 2015 edition of Choreographers’ Showcase was a mixed bag, of which Anh’s glittering Evol was the high point.

Successful reruns of Turandot, The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet allowed a new generation of dancers to tackle iconic roles. The dancers continued to impress, among them Shen Jie, who has established himself as a star, Liu Miao-miao who has come into her own as a ballerina and Li Lin, Xia Jun and Lucas Jerkander, who all continued to develop strongly.

Hong Kong Dance Company paid tribute to its Chinese dance heritage with Shao Nian Yau, curated and given a characteristically quirky twist by Yuri Ng Yue-lit. The production included My Chess Game by leading dancer Chen, whose choreographic talents were also on display in the thrilling Bipolar Bodies, a collaboration with Daniel Yeung – a startlingly original concept, brilliantly executed.

The company’s new full-length L’Amour Immortel, inspired by beloved Hong Kong movie A Chinese Ghost Story, was entertaining and visually striking but choreography and narrative needed more substance. The company’s award-winning The Legend of Mulan was well received on tours to New York and Sydney.

Natasha Rogai

Visual arts

Hong Kong’s visual art scene, like the city’s financial markets, continued to be impacted by outside factors in 2015. The Chinese clampdown on corruption and gift giving by officials impacted Hong Kong’s luxury spending, with frothy prices for contemporary art also coming off the boil, as seen in subdued prices at Hong Kong’s seasonal art auctions. Galleries have opened, but significantly no “international” galleries; and others have closed, including the long-running Zee Stone Gallery.

Art Basel Hong Kong again brought a full gathering of collectors, international galleries, museum curators and a myriad of other events. But, as I commented last year, its perceived dominance has also attracted too many hangers-on.

The Fotanian Open Studios were a victim of this enthusiasm, rescheduling their event to coincide with Art Basel. Amid an overkill of art activities, there was a noticeable thinning of attendees at these other events. Wisely, the Fotanian 2016 open days have returned to January. Hong Kong should have 52 weeks of art events, not just one concentrated week.

This year, the MTR Corporation apprised the Legislative Council of the geotechnical construction problems encountered with the controversial cross-border express rail line to Guangzhou. The corporation is also responsible for building the superstructure of the middle section of the West Kowloon Cultural District. These delays have impacted the start of construction for the performing arts and concert venues. The outgoing M+ executive director, Lars Nittve, has successfully built a team of professional staff and introduced operational systems from scratch, ensuring the foundations of an excellent M+. This is a defining position for his successor – there should be keen worldwide competition for this challenging and prestigious job.

In the interim, chief curator Doryun Chong is acting director.

The M+ team curated three of this year’s essential exhibitions: Moving Images, of short film and video art; Live Art, an overview of performance art that particularly focused on Asian artists; and the successful presentation of artist Tsang Kin-wah as Hong Kong’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale. These joined the Asia Society’s considered “Bat Cave – Treasures of the day and creatures of the night” and a range of research-based exhibitions at Para Site including an assessment of Hong Kong’s current identity in the “Imagine there’s no country, above us only our cities” exhibition.

The aftermath of Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests brought books, films and exhibitions exploring that heady time. Exhibitions of Umbrella artefacts were the least successful, but Ivy Ma’s portraits of protesters, South Ho’s documentary photographs and Birdy Chu’s video presentation all hit a nerve.

This year’s most successful development was the consolidation of sound art in Hong Kong. The monthly sound presentations of Sonic Anchor, led by artist Samson Young, the dedicated explorations of soundpocket, Empty Gallery’s Sonorous Objects exhibition and private initiatives gave this art year greater depth.

John Batten