Arts review: Hong Kong Sinfonietta brings Russian folktale to life

Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story told with humour and expression with great choreography and stellar musicianship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 10:00am

Stravinsky’s music is often considered abstract and formal, but choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit found colour, humour and expression in A Soldier’s Story. Taking inspiration from the Russian folktale of a returning soldier selling his soul to the devil, he wove together a whimsical story in modern dress.

Beginning with a leap onto the stage from the audience floor, dancer Chen Wu-kang was a charismatic narrator. The choreography caught the inflections of the music, using props such as a tiny green violin, paper planes and a violin presented like roast duck on a platter. A dance sequence found sensuality in the music that even Stravinsky might not have avowed.

Concertmaster James Cuddeford was the violin soloist in this chamber piece. It was his first appearance with the orchestra since he literally fell ill on stage in November last year, crushing his Gagliano violin. He was in great form (on a borrowed violin), playing the charmingly scruffy tunes with a sprightly bounce. All the players, particularly the clarinet, cornet and percussion played vividly and with the appropriate wry humour.

Taiwanese soloist Tseng Yu-chien revealed other sides of the violin in music of Bach and Tchaikovsky. The 21-year-old’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D was nearly flawless. He projected a modest demeanour, but had an unerring sense of phrasing, a delicate touch with the bow wrist, and attacked the aggressive passages. The cadenza in the first movement was a thrilling high-wire act with harmonics, octaves and arpeggios all laser-beamed to the target.

Tseng also has a wonderful melodic sense, but the performance sounded almost over-prepared – a tang of surprise, danger or edge would have given the performance even more brilliance.

Conductor Yip Wing-sie’s crisp gestures kept the orchestra in tight coordination with the soloist, and she led the full orchestra with ardour in Tchaikovsky’s splendid tuttis. One disappointment was that in the beautiful Canzonetta: Andante movement, the opening woodwind ensemble didn’t gel – the intonation was a bit tense and the horn and clarinet sounded too loud.

The programme opened with Bach’s magnificent Chaconne for solo violin, and here Tseng played with imagination, as if he were inventing the music as he went along. He led the audience through the variations as the piece flowered in complexity, making graceful transitions while keeping the powerful underlying momentum.

A Soldier’s Story – the New Generation

Hong Kong Sinfonietta

City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: February 21