Expect the unexpected as classical music innovators cast off shackles
Queenz of Piano who play lying down, The Leonis Quartet’s comedy and mime, The Real Group’s a cappella fun and erhu-harmonica duet set for Hong Kong
Classical music concerts do not have to be staid. They do not have to involve a group of musicians taking their place on stage, playing their set, and walking off again, to polite applause.
In some classical music performances, musicians lie on piano stools, with their legs in the air, and play the keys upside down.
Or musicians waltz up and down the stage on wheeled chairs, ride an imaginary merry-go-round, or take a drive in an invisible car.
On other stages, musicians are the instruments themselves – using their voices to imitate the sound of drums or a guitar – or they combine instruments and musical styles in new and unexpected ways.
Queenz of Piano
The German pianists Jennifer Rüth and Ming, known as the Queenz of Piano, will perform a musical extravaganza in Hong Kong on November 17 at Tsuen Wan Town Hall during which audiences can expect them to provide plenty of lively onstage antics, including playing their grand pianos from above, while sitting on them, and from below.
The performance – which forms part of the “Music Delight Series” being presented in the city by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department – will also see the pianists chat to the audience, telling quirky stories behind the music they have chosen to play, and urge the audience to sing along to popular refrains.
“Our message behind this is that a classical concert is not boring at all and can be lots of fun – even for younger people and for those who are less in touch with classical music,” Rüth says.
“In our concerts, the audience is allowed to sing along and clap their hands.
“The best way to create this atmosphere is to use more than just the black and white keys of the piano. It’s not just a concert – it’s a show!”
The evening’s repertoire will include a wide range of well-known tunes that are a mix of pop, rock and classical piano.
They play American rock group Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit with a chorale and a fugue in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Coldplay´s Viva la Vida with an interlude that is evocative of classical minimal music.
“We grew up with Beethoven, Mozart and Bach as well as with Michael Jackson, Nirvana and all the other famous pop music. We love to combine these genres.”
Rüth first studied classical piano before moving into jazz singing while at the legendary Berklee College of Music in the United States.
As a pianist, she has accompanied singers Chris de Burgh and Ronan Keating and she has also been the lead singer in several musicals.
South Korean-born Ming, who grew up in Germany, studied classical piano at Rostock and Bern, Switzerland.
In 2006, she invented her own “klassikbattle” show format, in which she sets herself up as if in a boxing ring for a fast-paced and very entertaining piano duel.
One local newspaper dubbed her “Berlin’s coolest pianist”.
The Queenz of Piano also turn the piano into a range of other musical instruments.
“It’s a lot of fun for us, but we also do this as we are able to imitate different musical styles and their characteristic instruments much better,” Rüth says.
“You can pluck the strings of a grand piano so that it sounds like a guitar; you can use it as a percussion instrument; if you play the strings with a milk [whisk] it sounds like a Greek bouzouki.
“We love to do these experiments with our instruments, in a careful and respectful way without destroying them, of course.”
The two Queenz of Piano performers are not the only ones reinventing the concept of a classical music concert.
The Leonis Quartet
The Leonis Quartet adds comedy, mime and dancing to the stage, taking audiences on a funny, sometimes chaotic, ride through a musical repertoire that is often unknown to the general public, but which includes some of the greatest pieces written for string quartets.
The musicians – two violinists Guillaume Antonini and Sebastien Richaud, cellist Julien Decoin and Alphonse Dervieux on viola – are graduates of some of the most prestigious music schools in France and have more than 10 years’ experience of playing classical music concerts.
Their musical inspirations include everything from Beethoven to tango, psychedelic rock to Irish folk music.
Dressed in black suits, the musicians flit from playing Haydn to acting scenes in extreme slow motion, and firing guns, gangster-style, fashioned from cocked fingers and thumbs to cheekily miming a cellist playing music that is actually being played offstage.
The Leonis Quartet will perform its spirited programme, “Total Eclipse”, on October 6 at Sha Tin Town Hall.
The Real Group
Less comedic, but also playful and multi-genre, is the Swedish a cappella quintet, The Real Group, which will perform lively numbers from jazz, folk and pop – mainly without the use of instruments, except for their own voices, on September 25 at Yuen Long Theatre.
The Real Group – one of the most popular and long-running a cappella groups around – has performed more than 2,500 concerts since it was formed in 1984.
The current line-up comprises soprano Emma Nilsdotter, alto Lisa Östergren, tenor Anders Edenroth, baritone Morten Vinther and bass Janis Strazdins.
Its return to Hong Kong sees the quintet singing both popular classics and original compositions, including some from its latest album “Elements”, such as Water, which sees the performers blow evocatively on bottles as they sing.
Beyond Boundary, Beyond Time
Fans of Chinese traditional music should also be prepared to be surprised by the programme called “Beyond Boundary, Beyond Time”, which takes place at Yuen Long Theatre on January 5, 2019.
Two talented Hong Kong musicians, erhu player Chan Pik-sum and harmonica player C.Y. Leo, will prove that a traditional Chinese instrument and mouth organ more often used in blues, jazz, folk and rock, make very sweet music together, indeed.
The musicians will then perform separately with their own Hong Kong band – Chan will present a nostalgic mix of traditional Chinese music, Guangdong songs and Hong Kong oldies on erhu, yangqin, cello, piano and drums, while Leo will explore a repertoire of beloved film themes, classical music and pop songs on harmonica, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.
Like Chan and Leo, the Queenz of Piano will also be performing traditional Chinese music; the two pianists have also been preparing a special song for their Hong Kong performance.
“We had a five-week concert tour through China in summer 2017, when we played 13 concerts in cities from Shanghai to Beijing,” Rüth says.
“This was a great experience because we learned so much about Chinese culture.
“[In all of these concerts], the audience particularly loved one piece of music, which describes how happiness is seen and felt in different European cultures.
“It’s a mixture of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which Chinese audiences loved so much, and Pharrell Williams’ Happy. For our concert in Hong Kong, we will readopt it in our repertoire.
“If we are on tour abroad, we also always try to play traditional songs of each foreign country. We are already learning a Chinese song, which is a lot of fun but also hard work because for us Europeans the Chinese language is quite a challenge.
“But hopefully, the Hong Kong audience will help us by singing the song together with us.”