Cantonese drama may still be the box office champion in this town but it is in classical music, dance and English-language theatre that quality triumphed in 2008. One of the more interesting developments on the orchestral scene this year was the appointment of Jean Thorel as chief conductor of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, the first time the ensemble has taken on such a commitment. Early signs were encouraging, with Thorel getting the best from both the music and the players, whose looks of satisfaction were plain to see. If the programme novelties favoured by the orchestra can also be relied on as music of substance, the future looks exciting. Music director and conductor Yip Wing-sie continued at the helm of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, whose ranks now feature only the occasional western face. The orchestra has tackled more repertoire, demanding a full-blown romantic sound. There was a chance that bundling all four of Rachmaninov's piano concertos into two evenings might have overstretched, but Yip and soloist Peter Donohoe left us wanting more. Edo de Waart remained the driving force behind the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as its artistic director and chief conductor. Since October he has been supported by Perry So as assistant conductor. So took first prize at this year's International Prokofiev Competition for conductors in St Petersburg and is now responsible for the orchestra's education and community programmes. His step up to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's rostrum is eagerly awaited. Premiere Performances of Hong Kong (PPHK) continued to make good on its promise to nurture high-quality programmes of solo and chamber recitals. Although Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski left us disappointed with a programme that was largely monochromatic in execution, PPHK gave us possibly the most memorable concert of the year. The solo recital from British pianist Stephen Hough kept virtuosity at the service of the music and engaged the ear at a rare level. Smaller ensembles had the edge over larger orchestral programmes with uniformly exceptional music-making. Violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter directed the Trondheim Soloists in Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, reinventing the work with lashings of arresting colours and graphic picture-painting; the ensemble's interpretation of Bartok's Divertimento for Strings was a revelation. A gem from the Hong Kong Arts Festival was the Schiff, Shiokawa, Perenyi Piano Trio's all-Beethoven concert. Form and content are seldom so happily married as in their readings of the Archduke and Ghost trios. Visits from the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were naturally diary highlights. All too often, however, orchestral concerts in general carried a pebble in the shoe: either under-rehearsed curtain-raisers, soloists not matching their reputations, or awkward programme-planning. A memorable exception was the Hong Kong Philharmonic's concert of music with a British slant that gave us de Waart's persuasive direction of Elgar's First Symphony, James MacMillan's thought-provoking Britannia, and Bruch's Scottish Fantasy featuring violin soloist Huang Mengla, a mainland artist who, more than most, merits the publicity machine hype. The dance year was dominated by visits from two of the world's greatest companies, Britain's Royal Ballet and Russia's Bolshoi Ballet. Both troupes are at the top of their game and Hong Kong was privileged to see them in their signature works. The Royal Ballet fielded three magnificent casts in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon and the Bolshoi's new superstar Ivan Vasiliev dazzled in the title role of Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus. Ballet doesn't get any better than this. Stuttgart Ballet also performed a signature work, John Cranko's Eugene Onegin, for the Hong Kong Arts Festival but its performance was low key. In contemporary dance, the effervescent Paul Taylor Dance Company showed its legendary energy and verve. Nederlands Dans Theatre's mixed bill was brilliantly danced, but only one piece (Lightfoot and Leon's Shoot the Moon) stood out choreographically. The New Vision Arts Festival explored the alternative side with a good range of offerings such as Kisaeng Becomes You, an intriguing work by American Dean Moss and Korean Kim Yoon-jin. The three major local companies all had good, if not vintage, years. City Contemporary Dance Company was on superb form with Dominic Wong's exhilarating treatment of Vivaldi in Xtremely Four Seasons, a triumph for choreographer and dancers alike. Helen Lai's No End was a sombre, powerful tribute to the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Yuri Ng's Love on Sale was teeming with ideas but overblown, and Xing Liang's Out of the Box starkly experimental. Young dancers who joined the company recently made an impact and the company maintained its excellence in lighting and design. Hong Kong Dance Company looked stronger than it has for some time with Yang Yuntao making a welcome return as dancer and assistant artistic director. The troupe produced two entertaining new full-length works, Yang's well-choreographed Mulan and Leung Kwok-shing's martial arts extravaganza The Snow Fox, based on a novel by Louis Cha. New choreography by the dancers demonstrated innovation and humour in the workshop programme, Hong Kong Spring, produced by Daniel Yeung. Hong Kong Ballet expanded its repertoire of 19th-century classics with Ronald Hynd's enchanting Coppelia and a fine Giselle staged by artistic director John Meehan. Its new work, the elegiac The Way Alone from Australian Stephen Baynes, was a success, but the annual choreographic workshop was disappointing compared to previous years. The Tricolor mixed bill allowed the local audience to see three 20th-century masterpieces: Balanchine's Rubies, Lifar's Suite en Blanc and Tudor's Lilac Garden. The last two were new to Hong Kong. This programme showed the stylistic and dramatic range of the company's dancers, along with their new degree of technical assurance. The local independent scene continued to bubble with energy and produced quality as well as quantity. Daniel Yeung's one-man Medi-C combined his unique style of choreography with brilliant use of multi-media to create a stunning production. Other memorable shows included Allen Lam's heartfelt exploration of local themes in Space Within Shapes and the eclectic Craze Explosion, a lively triple bill from the indefatigable Jackie Yu. In opera, the Italian cast of Teatro Regio di Parma's Rigoletto, a Hong Kong Arts Festival programme, gave a shining example of how to perform Verdi with passion and commitment. Opera Hong Kong continued to make good progress in its mission to establish opera in Hong Kong with an exceptional production of Massenet's Werther (a Hong Kong premiere) featuring international star Denyce Graves and a well-sung, workmanlike Don Carlo. On the theatre front, Cantonese stage productions remain in the humdrum. The three government-subsidised groups - the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Zuni Icosahedron and Chung Ying Theatre - all bumbled along, staging works that surprised few. What did surprise was that Theatre Ensemble had decided to go it alone without public funding in March and reinvented itself as PIP Cultural Industries. But since then the company has scaled back its operations and productions because of the economic downturn. There was one Cantonese work that really stood out this year and that was a one-woman show by playwright and actress Wong Wing-sze: My Grandmother's Funeral, which enjoyed three runs this year (two staged to coincide with the Ching Ming Festival and Halloween), is an original work brimming with humour and humanity. In this autobiographic piece directed by Lee Chun-chow, Wong recalls her grandmother's passing and in doing so explores her family's colourful history, Chinese traditions and superstition. Another noteworthy work was a new commission from the Hong Kong Arts Festival, a local adaptation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus by Tang Shu-wing of No Man's Land. The veteran stage director was able to maximise dramatic impact with a minimalist setup and deliver madness without hysteria. Indie band Juicyning brought a breath of fresh air to the scene with its theatrical debut Show On Show Off, but the five foul-mouthed members were basically playing themselves. They have yet to prove that they are more than just a one-show wonder. Theatre du Pif's artistic directors Sean Curran and Bonni Chan Lai-chu had a productive year, staging two original works, Hanako's Pillow and last month's The Will to Build, as part of the New Vision Arts Festival. Their July show, inspired by a collection of Japanese ghost stories known as Kwaidan, failed to cast a spell over the audience despite its excellent set, costumes, lighting and live music. The Will to Build delved into an important part of Hong Kong's social history - its land and housing development - and explored its impact on society. The show was sincere and, at times, moving, with strong visuals from the British video and photography collective Burst TV to support the overall narrative. The production featured veteran actor Lee Chow-chun, who was ubiquitous this year, appearing in many productions including On & On Theatre's Rat, Revenge and Sword in July and Asian People's Theatre Festival Society's An Epilogue? The Life and Times of Foo Lo Bing a month later. The most memorable though is his performance in Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong, an English drama by author and playwright Peter Wesley-Smith staged at the Fringe Club. His portrayal of the Vietnamese statesman was multi-faceted, showing first a man of great wit during his revolutionary days before becoming a disillusioned and fragile, yet intense, old man. The English-language theatre scene has had an exceptionally good year, with quality productions. The best include Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman by Looking Glass Productions, David Mamet's Oleanna by Blank Theatre Company, and Stephen Schwartz's musical Pippin by Baz & Maz Productions. Pippin was special because it made imaginative use of its outdoor venue, the Lok Hing Lane Amphitheatre in Lan Kwai Fong. Bigbox Theatre Productions' A Streetcar Named Desire was superb. From the set to the direction, to the acting and live piano accompaniment from Jonathan Douglas (who also penned the original score), the show brought the Tennessee Williams classic vividly back to life. After acquiring the right to perform the show locally, the Hong Kong Singers did not disappoint with their staging of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The ensemble not only delivered musically but also gave a fine interpretation to this moving story.