Classical music

The best – and worst – of Hong Kong’s performing arts in 2017: memorable moments, star performances

From the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s inspiring fusion concerts to the success of touring production Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical, it was a great year for both local and overseas productions, despite two big cancellations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 4:49pm

This year, the two biggest classical concerts in Hong Kong suffered massive setbacks: Venezuelan star conductor Gustavo Dudamel cancelled on us, as did Chinese pianist Lang Lang. Both were expected to appear in November – Dudamel as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and Lang with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the 20th anniversary celebrations of Hong Kong’s return to China – and both were headline acts.

But while fans might have been disappointed, no one was surprised. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro had already ordered Dudamel to call off his US tour with Venezuela’s National Youth Orchestra in August before pulling the plug on the Asian tour of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra – three weeks ahead of its sold-out concerts.

Gustavo Dudamel’s Hong Kong concerts cancelled as Venezuelan government axes orchestra’s Asian tour

Lang, meanwhile, was suffering from a known ailment – inflammation in his left arm that had left him out of action for several months – though he did “borrow” the left hand of 14-year-old US pianist Maxim Lando to perform at the Carnegie Hall annual gala in New York in October.

Fortunately, 2017 saw few other disappointments on the local performing arts front. While I had to walk out of two performances – the City Contemporary Dance Company’s dated and dull Post-Perception/Transcendence and the Hong Kong Dance Company’s poorly executed Vipassana – most of the performances I saw this year, both local and from overseas, were engaging, inspiring and enjoyable.

The year got off to a solid start with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s third instalment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Siegfried. Conducted by the troupe’s music director Jaap van Zweden, the opera-in-concert featured a strong cast of singers (tenors Simon O’Neill and David Cangelosi and soprano Heidi Melton in particular stood out in their roles) who, together with the orchestra, unfolded the Norse tale with much emotional and dramatic intensity.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta continued to sparkle with its diverse and creative programming. While the orchestra was at its usual best in Ethereal is the Moon (for the Arts Festival) and the concert with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras (for Le French May), it was its two fusion concerts that I found the most clever and inspiring.

Transfigured Night featured a dance piece choreographed by Justyne Li Sze-yeung to the score of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4. It is not an easy piece of music to dance to, but Kelvin Mak, together with Vivian Leung, Alice Ma and Yang Jingxian, successfully used movement to portray a lover with a secret.

In McDull: Pictures at a Concert, the orchestra used music to enhance the beauty of various paintings which were projected onto a big screen. The pairing of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor with a series of self portraits of Rembrandt (of different ages) was effective and moving.

Though Hong Kong didn’t get the chance to hear Dudamel’s Beethoven symphonic cycle with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, we were treated with something rare and special from Konstantin Lifschitz, who performed all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, over eight concerts, at the University of Hong Kong to great reviews.

Dudamel’s compatriot and pianist Gabriela Montero did make it here, giving a concert in which she improvised to tunes suggested by the audience.

Montero was presented by Premiere Performances of Hong Kong (PPHK), which also celebrated its 10th anniversary in September with a free and memorable concert featuring past collaborators including pianist Sa Chen, violin Ning Feng and guitarist Milos Karadaglic.

PPHK had even more reason to celebrate when, this month, founder and executive director Andrea Fessler was named one of the top “30 Professionals of the Year” by Musical America magazine.

Also worth mentioning is that the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong’s 2015 production Bug Symphony beat 59 other entries from 17 countries to win the Public Choice Award at the 2017 Young Audiences Music Awards in Portugal in September.

One of the best local stage productions I’ve seen this year is the Youth Arts Foundation’s original musical Melodia. Bursting with so much energy and talent, here is a show that the charity’s founder Lindsey McAlister can further develop and take on the road.

Review: Melodia is a delight that raises the bar high for original local productions

Equally entertaining was the touring production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical, which was as funny and camp as the 1994 film that it is based on. Its success shows that there is an appetite in Hong Kong for the less mainstream musical productions.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival presented two family-themed trilogies this year: Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family by The Public Theater from the US and A Floating Family – A Trilogy, an original festival commission written by Loong Man-hong.

Both works explored recent social and political histories of their respective cities (New York and Hong Kong) and are good examples of how theatre done well can relate and resonate.