At the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival, smaller ensembles still pack a big punch

This year’s festival programme offers a broad range of pieces from the classical, Romantic and modern periods, from Beethoven to Bartok

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 6:02am

Sometimes it’s the tail that wags the dog when it comes to putting together programmes for the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival.

At least that’s how its artistic director Jimmy Lin Cho-liang sees it. The venue is critical, as places with the right acoustics and size for chamber music in Hong Kong are not plentiful, especially given that many concertgoers won’t venture far from Central.

So besides the artistic concerns, Lin needs to keep in mind which among the available spaces will suit which pieces. “We’re completely at the mercy of the venues,” says the 55-year-old Taiwanese American violin virtuoso.

“The grander pieces, like Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, really should go into a bigger place like City Hall,” Lin explains. “Everybody’s favourite piece of chamber music, Schumann’s Piano Quintet, should also go into the bigger hall, because it has that sense of sonority, exuberance and the energy that carries over a larger space.”

Warm and genial in person, Lin took over from cellist Trey Lee Chiu-yee as artistic head of the festival in 2012, after it had already completed two editions. He is perfect for the position. After all, it is his familiar world – he has been the music director of the SummerFest chamber music festival in La Jolla, California for 15 years, and musicians from New York to London to Beijing are his colleagues and friends. With a warm smile and a ready laugh, he is happy to talk about the upcoming concerts.

Having “talked endlessly” with Andrea Fessler, executive director of Premiere Performances of Hong Kong which organises the annual event, about which concerts to stage where, they have settled for a music selection that promises to warm the hearts of both newcomers and serious aficionados, featuring major pieces from the repertoire plus some divertissements.

Highlights from the Romantic canon include works by Brahms, Dvorak, Schubert, Schumann and Arensky. The classical era is represented by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, and the 20th century offers Shostakovich and the Bartok.

The opening night at City Hall Concert Hall on January 20 is titled “Gypsy Spirit”. Lin says: “I had envisioned a very strong Hungarian flavour. We needed something well-known, but not a worn-out war horse.

“Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet came into mind, but that’s an afterthought because the main piece for me on that programme is the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. You can say, ‘Is it really stupid to put Bartok on opening night?’ but this piece deserves front and centre spotlight because it is a masterpiece.”

So he tried to build a programme around it. Since Bartok’s piece ends quietly – not an ideal piece to conclude a concert (“we want something with a big kaboom! Bang!”), Lin picked Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor.

“Then I thought, Dohnanyi’s Serenade for String Trio, a perfect opening piece,” he adds.

The second concert, on January 22, will be held at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, taking advantage of the size of this cosy venue.

“That’s a smaller space, but acoustically very good. There is no piano there so I created a strings-only programme. We’re going to do Dvorak’s beautiful viola quintet, and a cheerful Rossini quartet for two violins, bass and cello.

I said: ‘I need a quartet that is well known, about 20-25 minutes long. What do you have in that range?’ It’s like going shopping – I need a refrigerator about this big
Jimmy Lin, artistic director

“For me, the Rossini quartets – he wrote six of them when he was 12, can you believe that? – they’re like perfect Rossini overtures. It puts everybody into a good mood immediately, and also shows off the virtuosity of every player. The second violin sometimes has even more stuff than the first violin, so it’s very fun.”

Also on the programme is Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat Major to be performed by Clara-Jumi Kang and Paul Neubauer. Lin says: “Again, in an intimate space that’s perfect. They are exceedingly hard, the two duos, because you’re completely naked, there’s nowhere to hide – just the two of you. The intonation has to be just right, the ensemble, the precision, the elegance, the toss-off phrases from one to the other and back. It’s a wonderful challenge.”

That will be followed by what Lin refers to as “wonderful and whimsical arrangements” of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bizet’s Carmen by Julian Milone, an English composer: “The score is for four violins and bass – really fun virtuosity and we’ll send everybody home with fireworks.”

Another venue chosen for the festival is the Grand Hall at the University of Hong Kong where “An Afternoon in Vienna” will be held on January 24.

Lin says they will not be throwing Bartok and Shostakovich at the audience on a Sunday afternoon. And when he asked guest ensemble the Emerson String Quartet for a repertoire list, he noticed that among them was an early Beethoven quartet, the Opus 18, and he thought “that’s great”.

Another guest group, the newly formed Montrose Trio – Martin Beaver, Clive Greensmith and Jon Kimura Parker – offered a Haydn trio.

“So Haydn, Beethoven, and then let’s just do the [Schubert] Trout Quintet. It’s a Sunday afternoon, you want to play something that is genuinely cheerful,” says the violinist.

Other than the nine-time Grammy winning Emerson String Quartet from New York (who will perform Schubert, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn) and the Montrose Trio, other musicians taking part in next year’s festival include pianist Zhang Zuo and cellist Gary Hoffman. Local players include violist Andrew Ling and timpanist James Boznos from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and percussionist Rieko Koyama from the Sinfonietta.

The festival returns to City Hall for the finale on January 27, which will feature works by Arensky, Dvorak and Schumann.

“I still have to give someone like Zhang Zuo something to really strut her stuff, and the Arensky [Piano Trio] is such a virtuoso piano part,” Lin says.

“The Emerson Quartet will be still around. I said: ‘I need a quartet that is well known, about 20-25 minutes long. What do you have in that range?’ It’s like going shopping – I need a refrigerator about this big,” he jokes.

“They said: ‘How about the Dvorak American Quartet?’ I said: ‘Perfect.’ We’ve never had that quartet at the festival, and everybody loves it.”

The festival also has an extensive set of extra events including open rehearsals, lectures and pre-concert talks in English and Cantonese.

There is a double bass masterclass with DaXun Zhang, violin masterclasses with Leo Phillips and Lin, a cello masterclass with Greensmith, a free concert at the Rotunda in Exchange Square, chamber music coaching and career insights for aspiring musicians.

“The festival is a journey, it’s not just a one-off. It has a profound impact when experienced as a whole [series],” says Fessler.

Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival, Jan 22-27, various times and venues. For more details, go to pphk.org