La Scena Musicale

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Atherton, Hong Kong Philharmonic and Labèque Sisters Captivate Audience!

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

This evening, we crossed the harbor from Hong Kong to Kowloon for a concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The orchestra’s conductor laureate, David Atherton, was on the podium and the Labèque Sisters (Katia and Marielle) were the featured pianists in works by Poulenc and Debussy.

Atherton began the evening’s all-French programme with BerliozCorsair Overture. From the opening string flourishes, it was clear that we were listening to a fine orchestra under the direction of a demanding and forceful conductor. The HK Philharmonic played with exemplary precision and Atherton built the climaxes with a knowing hand.

Next came Poulenc’s rarely-heard Concerto for Two Pianos. In his excellent notes, Marc Rochester rightly pointed out the Asian influences in the piece. Poulenc had heard some Balinese gamelan music in Paris in 1931, and the influence is clearly evident at the end of the first movement, and again in the finale. The concerto is typical of Poulenc in its combination of tunes that could have been borrowed from the popular music of the day, with episodes more chromatic and darker in feeling.

The Labèque sisters played the piece with their usual flair and sensitivity to color. Atherton and the orchestra made the most of the unusual orchestration. After intermission, the soloists returned to play Debussy’s En blanc et noir, a work for two pianos without orchestra.

Debussy had been shocked by the outbreak of war the previous year and by the death of a close friend Jacques Charlot, an editor at the Durand publishing house, who was killed in battle. The second of the three movements in En blanc et noir was written in memory of Charlot. The performance was ideal.

Finally, Atherton and the HK Philharmonic presented Franck’s Symphony in D minor, in a truly a remarkable performance. This piece can be a tiresome experience; in the hands of most conductors it never seems to get going - the stops and starts seem endless.

With Atherton shaping the phrases and making sure that each was given time to breathe, the piece had a convincing inner logic. Nor was Atherton afraid to exhort the power of his brass, all the while superbly in control of the performance as a whole. His tempo for the slow movement was, to my mind, exactly right - just a shade slower than usual - and served to bring out the dolefulness of the music.

It’s difficult to generalize after only one concert, but I would venture to say that the quality of sound from the violin section can be attributed to the leadership of concertmaster John Harding. A vast range of bow strokes were used over the course of the concert, and the violins led by Harding covered a huge dynamic range, from the tenderest pp to the most powerful ff.
For the record, I was sitting in the stalls (ground floor, middle) about seven rows back from the stage. It seemed to me that the sound here was much better than in the balcony where I had sat for a concert earlier this month.

Under Edo de Waart (music director), and David Atherton (conductor laureate), the Hong Kong Philharmonic is in very good hands. The orchestra gives almost weekly subscription concerts, spends a lot of its time on educational programmes throughout the SAR (Special Administrative region…i.e., Hong Kong), and recently made a tour to several cities in China.

I was surprised to find that there were no recordings by the HK Philharmonic, Edo de Waart, David Atherton or any of the orchestra’s illustrious soloists available for sale at the HK Cultural Centre store. Surely this is a major marketing oversight that will soon be remedied!

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Hong Kong Arts Festival Ends on a High Note!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The 37th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival ended this week after a very busy month which featured 125 performances and eight world premieres. The organizers reported that the average attendance was a very healthy 94%. There was lots of dance and theatre – a Peter Hall production of Pygmalion was among the highlights – but many more musical events. No fewer than four orchestras were invited this year: the Chicago Symphony (Haitink), the Northern Sinfonia, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Koopman) and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Metzmacher). I arrived in Hong Kong just in time to hear the last of these ensembles, and its two concerts were a mixed bag.

Sound and Interpretation Problematic in Metzmacher’s Bruckner

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) Berlin played in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a hall seating about 2,000 in a circle surrounding the performers. From my balcony seat, the orchestra had lots of presence and the reverberation was reasonably long and quite flattering; however, the best acoustics in the world don’t help much when the air conditioning system is so noisy.

Ingo Metzmacher opened the first concert with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the soft upper string lines at the beginning of the piece were almost inaudible. The same thing happened at the beginning of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony later in the evening. Something needs to be done about this problem or world-class performers will simply find excuses to avoid Hong Kong.

I have long admired the DSO Berlin, as far back as the days when it was called the RIAS Symphony under Ferenc Fricsay. More recently, Kent Nagano was the music director and to judge by the recordings, he got excellent results. On this occasion, there was no doubt about the very high quality of the orchestra and I heard some especially fine horn and double bass playing.

Metzmacher is more problematic than his orchestra. His leadership was impressive in Webern’s Passacaglia and the Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, but his Bruckner was disappointing.

There is a formidable tradition of Bruckner conducting from Furtwängler through Jochum, Böhm, Karajan and Tennstedt; for such conductors, Bruckner not only created monumental musical structures, but also sought to express deep thoughts about his religious faith. For Metzmacher, Bruckner is apparently a less gifted relative of Carl Maria von Weber. To put it another way, this was ‘Bruckner Lite’ - one trivial rustic tune after another, with no depth of feeling whatsoever.

Metzmacher hurried through the Seventh Symphony as if he had a plane to catch. Climaxes in the middle of the slow movement and at the end of the first and last movements never came close to the ecstatic heights the music requires. With this kind of conducting, Bruckner’s music will soon disappear from the repertoire.

When Metzmacher turned to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, he conducted with more fire, but again there was a decided lack of flexibility and poetry. In both major symphonies, Metzmacher seemed to think that loud endings are crude and vulgar. He went out of his way to make the last chords actually less powerful than what had come before. Instead of avoiding vulgarity, the effect was to make the endings anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Soloists Struggle with Hall Acoustics
Another major problem in the first concert was baritone Matthias Goerne. He has gained a well-earned reputation as a lieder singer. Perhaps he was indisposed on this night, because he was virtually inaudible through much of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. He also seemed to have trouble sustaining phrases.

Guest violinist Christian Tetzlaff also seemed to struggle to be heard in the Berg concerto. As does Goerne, Tetzlaff spends a good deal of time playing in the realm of sotto voce; this is very dangerous territory for a soloist when a big orchestra is at work behind him in a less than ideal hall.

Objectively speaking, the acoustics in the HK Cultural Centre could have been to blame for some of these auditory problems.

Metzmacher Takes ‘Encore’ Literally!
Curiously, as an ‘encore’ after the Bruckner at the first of the DSO Berlin concert, Metzmacher repeated the Wagner Lohengrin Prelude he had used to open the concert. What was the point? To remind us how much Bruckner was indebted to Wagner? Or perhaps to remind us how effectively the air conditioning noise had drowned out the soft opening of the piece at its first playing? I don’t think I was the only audience member who would rather have heard some other music.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Architecturally Bland
I will have to reserve judgment on the acoustics of the HK Cultural Centre, having heard only two concerts from pretty much the same seats; on the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever about the architecture of the place. While the site chosen for the Centre is surely one of the best locations in Hong Kong – right next to the Star Ferry dock in Kowloon with a fantastic view of Hong Kong, especially at night – the building itself is hideous beyond belief. Basically, it is a beige wall of bricks with no windows and no imaginative embellishment to break up the ugly emptiness. The nearby Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art are equally uninspired structures.

The interior of the Cultural Centre, happily, is a feast for the eyes, fairly overflowing with colorful posters of productions past and present, contemporary art exhibits, and performance videos.

Hong Kong Philharmonic to Perform Later this Month
I will be back at the HK Cultural Centre in a few weeks time to hear a concert by the HK Philharmonic. I look forward to hearing how the orchestra has evolved from the semi-professional band I knew forty years ago – I actually played double bass in the HKPO for a short period – into the fully professional ensemble headed today by the eminent Edo de Waart.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hong Kong 40 Years Later: A Homecoming and a Transformation

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

It was in 1966 that Marita and I first arrived in Hong Kong. The trip out from Canada was our honeymoon and a post at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) was my first job. We were young and adventurous, looking for an exotic life – and we found it. We spent three happy years here and then left for other challenges. Yes, we are back! This week, 40 years after we left it, we returned to Hong Kong and to HKU where I gave a lecture on Leopold Stokowski.

Forty years later, what has changed, and what if anything, has survived of the world Marita and I knew in the mid 1960s?

On a superficial level Hong Kong today is a modern miracle, a far cry from the colonial outpost caught in a time warp that it appeared to be in 1966. In those days, the planes landed at Kai Tak Airport, little more than a runway stuck into the middle of the harbor off Kowloon. It was a precarious place to land and some flights inevitably ended up in the water. Today, planes fly in and out of a much safer airport on Lantau Island. Arriving passengers are whisked into the city via a wonderfully smooth and quiet express train, or by taxi over a suspension bridge that is an engineering marvel. In Hong Kong itself, 7 million people are transported to and fro by an incredible combination of escalators, interconnecting walkways, and a super-efficient network of buses.

Life on Three Levels and Gone are the Lawns
Most of Hong Kong island is a mountain and most people live somewhere on the side of that mountain (Central, Mid-levels, or the “Peak”). This means that cars and other vehicles are always going up or downhill, or around a switchback. If one is on foot, one is always either climbing up or down endless staircases, or stopping to catch a breath. In our 1960s Hong Kong, there was still a community of shacks on the hillside (right). If shacks still exist somewhere on the island, we didn't see them.

The HKU campus in those days was lush and green, with more lawns than buildings. My office overlooked the inner courtyard of the main building on campus. This 1912 Edwardian building still stands, and continues to be an important part of campus life.

Upon arrival in Central (downtown on Hong Kong island), I was overwhelmed by the vast number of high-rise office buildings and modern shopping complexes. So much of the old Hong Kong has been rearranged, hidden behind grander structures or simply bulldozed, that I was completely disoriented.

Marita and I are staying at Robert Black College, a residence for visiting scholars situated at Mid-Levels on the Hong Kong University campus. The campus fronts on Bonham Road but ends well up the hill at University Drive. Robert Black is on University Drive and to get to the main academic building one heads downhill through the entire campus which, 40 years after we left it, is jammed with buildings where beautiful lawns used to be. Going downhill to the campus from Robert Black is a breeze; it’s heading back up that’s literally a ‘drag’ - a climb ideally accomplished with the assistance of several sherpas and a mule or a mountain goat.

Forty years ago the climb was not so very different for us, because we lived at No. 3 University Drive. No. 3 no longer exists; it was demolished about ten years ago to make way for a sizeable Graduate Centre.

Hong Kong University Department of Music Debuts in the 1980s

In 1966, HKU was a small, prestigious institution. I was there to lecture in Philosophy, but my first and last love was really music, and I gravitated towards it whenever I could. No Department of Music at HKU? No problem. I persuaded the Department of Extra-Mural Studies to let me give some courses in music. No professional orchestra? Again, no problem. I would form one. Before long I was spending many nights and weekends filling the air with music and talk about music; it was well into the 1980s, however, before the powers that be at HKU came to their senses and created the Department of Music which today is a vibrant part of university life.

I am currently completing revisions to my Stokowski book and the new version will be published later this year. With Stokowski on my mind, I proposed to the music department at HKU a lecture called “Leopold Stokowski: the Limits of Interpretation.” They liked the idea and this past week I delivered the goods to a packed house – or should I say, a packed ‘room’, an assembled throng of 20, which was in fact as large a group as the room could accommodate.

The attendees included some formidable folk, one of whom was Mak Su-yin, who once worked for me at CJRT-FM in Toronto and is now in charge of academic studies in music at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts.

Another listener with a Toronto connection was Deborah Waugh, a percussionist who studied with members of Nexus and who is now a staff member in HKU’s Department of Music.

Chan Hing-yan is a composer and Associate Professor in the department. He recently completed a piece for harp and shared with me how much he had learned from Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s harp compositions. In his opinion, Schafer – with the help of Toronto Symphony harpist Judy Loman – has written some of the best harp music ever. I had no difficulty agreeing with him.

Another attendee was Ron Hill, a former staff member in the Geography department at HKU who, in retirement, appears be one of the busiest double bass players in Hong Kong. He delivered the sad news that one of our best friends in our Hong Kong years, Professor Robert Lord, had recently passed away. Robert’s academic fields were Russian literature and linguistics, but he was a skilled violist as well. We enjoyed making music together.

It is inevitable after all this time that inquiries about old friends frequently bring answers we don’t want to hear or believe. And so we also learned from Ron that another great soul is no longer with us: Mary Visick, an old China hand who did more than her share for the appreciation of literature in the Far East.

The Peak Tram and Lunch at The Lookout
Our second day in Hong Kong we took the famous Peak Tram to the top of the mountain with US attorney Yee Ling, a former student of Marita’s (Ying Wah Girls’ School), as our guide. In the days before air-conditioning “the Peak” was where the rich folk went to escape the summer heat. More recently locals and tourists alike have been making the trip to get a breathtaking view of Hong Kong beneath them and Kowloon and the New Territories in the distance across the harbor.

On this trip we were amazed to see that the size of the harbor has shrunk. So much land has been reclaimed for new buildings that there seems to be far less open water.

The Peak Tram has been around since 1888 and it is not really a tram at all. It is more correctly called a ‘cog railway’ or ‘funicular.’ The cars run on tracks at a very steep angle but they are being pulled up the hill on a cable. It sounds like a dubious activity but the fact is this railway has never had an accident.

This was not the best day for viewing the panorama. Visibility was about 100 feet when we ascended, but during lunch the heavens opened and it rained heavily for half an hour. Then all at once the clouds parted and we could suddenly see for miles. We seized the opportunity to take a lot of pictures and we had no sooner finished, than the clouds closed in again. Our timing had been perfect.

In 1966, the view from The Peak had been magnificent! Good thing too, because there wasn’t much else to see or do up there.

Today there is the Peak Tower - a combination shopping mall and viewing platform. There are now also at least half a dozen restaurants. On Yee Ling’s recommendation, we chose to dine at the oldest one – the charming Peak Lookout Restaurant - and found it to be excellent. We were delighted with the lamb curry and Tandoori chicken. If it hadn’t been raining, we might have done some serious walking after lunch; the government has created the Hong Kong Trail which meanders through 30 miles of country parks including the area around the Peak.

An Old Friend, a New Memoir, and Reflections on History
As a Canadian, I cannot think about Hong Kong and its history without paying tribute to the brave men who tried to defend it against the Japanese invasion in 1941. The small British garrison was quickly overrun, along with the contingent of Canadian soldiers sent in as reinforcements. It was disgraceful that the Canadian government allowed them to be sent to almost certain death. There were never enough soldiers to stop the Japanese but the politicians wanted to look as if they were doing something simply to cover their own backsides. Many Canadians were brutally killed during the attack and others were put in internment camps at Stanley or Sham Shui Po. For some of these soldiers death must have seemed far preferable to the three years of internment they endured. They were badly treated and many died of beatings or malnutrition.

Many local residents were interned with the defending forces, including the remarkable Solomon Bard. Solly was a medical doctor and a musician whom I was honored to know during my sojourn in Hong Kong. Now 93, he has a new memoir – Light and Shade - coming out this month. I will discuss it further in one of my future blogs.

37th Hong Kong Festival of the Arts
The Hong Kong Festival of the Arts is currently underway and in my next blog I will give a report on it. The Chicago Symphony under Haitink has already been here and in the final week French actress Juliette Binoche is appearing with British dancer Akram Khan in a unique show called In-I. In-I is primarily a dance event and Binoche deserves a lot of credit for attempting to go beyond her accustomed comfort zone as an actress. Also coming up are two concerts by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Ingo Metzmacher.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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