Making an Effort

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also. – Igor Stravinsky

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3rd June, 2016 – BBC Frozen Planet in Concert

Conductor: Benjamin Northey

Orchestra: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Fenton: BBC Frozen Planet (Live music with images)

In 2003, I saw George Fenton conduct HKPhilharmonic bringing us the music and footage from ‘The Blue Planet’. I loved the show and it was a great opportunity to see the composer conducting and talking about the music and how it related to the images. Last year I saw ‘Planet Earth’ performed in Hong Kong, so it was time to finish off this trilogy of concerts.

Although, I was less familiar with the music of this programme, it had George Fenton’s signature all over it. The music always complimented the footage whether it be crashing waves, orcas wave washing a seal to wear it out so they can eventually feed on it or a mother polar bear and her cubs.

The concert shows different aspects of nature where the audience is awed by the magnificence of the views captured, the brutality of predator prey interactions and of course the comical side to bring some light relief. Definitely a favourite part of the concert was watching the criminal penguins – stealing from another’s nest to build their own!


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17th November, 2015 – Benjamin Grosvenor

Piano – Benjamin Grosvenor

Venue: Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Mendelssohn  Two Preludes & Fugues from Op. 35

Chopin   Barcarolle op. 60

Chopin   Mazurkas Op. 63 No. 2 & Op. 30 No. 4

Chopin   Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante

Ravel   Le Tombeau de Couperin

Liszt   Venezia e Napoli

Premiere Performance of Hong Kong had wanted to book Benjamin Grosvenor, but he had already been fully booked for a few years ahead, so they had waited patiently for his availability to perform a recital in Hong Kong. Benjamin Grosvenor’s reputation just seems to go from strength to strength, currently being nicknamed the ‘Boy Lord of the Piano’ by the New York Times. It often amazes me that someone at the age of 23 has such skill at the piano and the humility and gratitude to the audience seems to show as he takes his bow.

Here he is in 2011 when he was the youngest soloist performing at a BBC Proms opening night:


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13th November, 2015 – Håkan Hardenberger, HK Sinfonietta

Conductor and Trumpet – Håken Hardenberger

Orchestra – Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Venue: Amphitheatre at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts

Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E flat

Prokofiev Classical Symphony, Op 25

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

Robert Planel Concerto for Trumpet and Strings

Joni Mitchell Both Sides, Now

Jan Lundgren The Seagull

I invited a couple of friends to come along to this concert. One is an artist and the other a fellow teacher. I was quite excited about going to this concert as it is seldom that we get to hear brass or woodwind concertos in Hong Kong compared to strings or piano. Håken Hardenberger is a well known Swedish trumpet player, who performs with renowned orchestras. I did find the choice of venue surprising though. I’ve been to concerts in the HKAPA amphitheatre before which is quite small and rather underwhelming.

The Haydn concerto started off well and Hardenberger produces a beautiful tone. However, when he was climbing through a phrase, it already felt like he was struggling and as an audience member, to be wondering, “Will he make it!?” decreases the enjoyment of the experience and he struggled to place the high notes which was a disappointment.

The rest of the pieces were conducted by Hardenberger and were pleasant enough and the orchestra performed well. Unfortunately, Hardenberger didn’t make it to another climactic point in the Planel concerto. Having read reviews and knowing this famous trumpeter’s name, I really expected better. I question what could have improved this concert. Was it too much to be conductor and soloist? Had jetlag caught up with him? Maybe this was just an off day.

Here’s a video of Håken Hardenberger performing the Haydn concerto with Yehudi Menuhin conducting in 1998:

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6th November, 2015 – Mozart and Strauss – Canellakis and Hadelich, HKPhil

Conductor: Karina Canellakis

Violin: Augustin Hadelich

Orchestra: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Mozart –  Abduction from the Seraglio Overture

Mozart –  Violin Concerto no. 5, Turkish

R. Strauss  – Die Frau ohne Schatten: Symphonic Fantasy

R. Strauss –  Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils

Since Marin Alsop made her speech as the first female conductor at the Last Night of the Proms, it seems that female conductors have stepped into the limelight a little more. Hopefully orchestras have become more intentional about including female conductors in their programmes. It is fantastic to see some female conductors in the HKPhil 15/16 season. This was the debut concert for Karina Canellakis. It is unsurprising that she has come over to Hong Kong to perform considering that Jaap Van Zweden is one of her mentors and they work with Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I definitely enjoyed watching her conduct showing appropriate movements for each phrase.

The first half of the concert had a Turkish theme – ‘Abduction from the Seraglio Overture’. This had lively beginning and endings featuring cymbals and piccolo, with a more sombre section in the middle. The second piece was Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 ‘Turkish’ played brilliantly by Augustin Hadelich.

Here’s a video of Augustin Hadelich:

The concert ended with two very entertaining pieces by R.Strauss. First was the symphonic poem translated as ‘The woman with no shadow’. The last piece of the evening was ‘Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils’ being based on the biblical story of Herod’s daughter. Herod offers Salome anything if she dances for him. She goes to her mother, Herodias, to ask what she should ask for and requests John the Baptist’s head on a tray. (John was not popular in the Herod household as he had told Herod that he should not have married his brother’s wife!)

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2nd November – Avi Avital and the Cologne Academy

Mandolin: Avi Avital

Orchestra: The Cologne Academy Chamber Orchestra

Venue: Hong Kong City Hall, Concert Hall

Vivaldi – Concerto in F major Autumn from The Four Seasons RV 293

Bach – Violin Concerto in G minor BWV 1056 (arr. Avital)

Vivaldi – Concerto in F minor Winter from The Four Seasons RV 297

Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041 (arr. Avital)

Bloch – Nigun from Baal Shem

Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances

Falla – Danse Espagnol

Tsintsadze – Georgian Folk from Eight Miniatures Tunes

I wasn’t so sure about buying a ticket to this concert at first. However, I knew the name, Avi Avital is quite prominent at the moment- probably due to following Wigmore Hall‘s Twitter feed and hearing of his collaboration with Mahan Esfahani, the harpsichordist.  I looked at the programme and saw that it consisted of equal measures of Baroque and folk music, both of which I enjoy, so why not go and experience it?!

As the players of the Cologne Academy walked onstage, I was surprised that the ensemble was mostly women. This was quite a nice observation to make as it is usually the opposite that is seen. Avi Avital and the conductor arrived and Avital sat on a chair near the front of the stage, but unfortunately for me the conductor was standing directly in my line of view! I was at the front and just at the wrong angle, but it really is all about listening to the music! The first half was Vivaldi and Bach which I enjoyed. The second half was based on folk music. Avital was fantastic on the mandolin and the balance between orchestra and soloist was excellent.

During the second half of the concert, Avital paused to talk about the concert and the pieces noting the themes of the two halves. He talked more about the pieces in the second half of the concert including the pieces by Tsintsadze, who he said many people may not have heard of and therefore may not have heard the music before. I had looked in the programme and noticed that one of the Tsintsadze pieces was called ‘Indi Mindi’ which rang a bell with me. So when I was listening to the music I recognized several sections, especially ‘Indi Mindi’ which I was quite excited about. I realized that I had a CD – probably from BBC Music Magazine around 20 years ago that was called ‘St Petersburg Classics’. I did get to mention my familiarity to ‘Indi Mindi’ to Avital afterwards, and he asked if I was a cellist as Tsintsadze wrote music for cello, but I told him that I had heard a chorale version of it on an old CD. He did comment that it was quite rare for someone to be familiar with this piece.

A mandolin concert is probably not everyone’s first choice, but Avital really makes the instrument and the music come alive, with his playing and programme choice. I would definitely recommend anyone to see Avital in concert, whether it is classical, folk or jazz that he is performing!

Avi Avital: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

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24th October, 2015 – Penderecki, James Cuddeford and HK Sinfonietta

Conductor: Penderecki

Violin: James Cuddeford

Orchestra: Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Venue: Hong Kong City Hall, Concert Hall

Penderecki Violin Concerto No.2, ‘Metamorphosen’

Shostakovich Symphony No.15 in A, Op 141

I was motivated to go to this concert as it’s a great opportunity to see a renowned living composer conducting his own work and a Shostakovich symphony. I had been quite oblivious to the fact that Penderecki actually knew/met Shostakovich. When I told a friend recently that I would be attending this concert with Penderecki conducting, he asked how I knew of this conductor. To be honest I have no idea but could only reply that I read ‘stuff’ – including BBC Music magazine. I was also thinking of various websites including Classic FM and NPR (classical music), and maybe browsing in CD shops engraves these names in my brain.

The Violin concerto was performed by HK Sinfonietta’s own concertmaster, James Cuddeford. It is a challenging work with the player having few breaks, and when they did come, they were short. Cuddeford did an excellent job and it was fantastic to see HKSinfonietta having one of their own perform as soloist.

James Cuddeford talking about the Penderecki violin concerto:

The Shostakovich symphony was performed well with clear entrances. This performance surpassed my expectations.

Here is a performance of the concerto by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Bernard Haitink conducting.

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23rd October 2015 – Christoph Eschenbach, HKPhil

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach

Piano: Tzimon Barto

Orchestra: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Dvorák – Carnival Overture

Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F

Brahms – Symphony no.1

I had wanted to see Christoph Eschenbach conduct for a while as I had seen he had worked with Ray Chen on his recent Mozart album.

The Carnival Overture was a fun way to start this concert. This piece of music is supposed to depict a wanderer coming across a city where a festival is taking place. This is definitely shown with the energetic folk dance feel of the music. The middle section, led by the flute and cor anglais is a much gentler tune, where the wanderer has found a companion. The Overture, soon returns back to lively dance music.

Here is a video of it being performed at the BBC Proms in 2012:

As Tzimon Barto entered the stage, my first impression was that he was quite a striking figure –  tall and broad shouldered. I’m sure he can produce the power needed in some piano concertos like Rachmaninov 3. In typical Gershwin style, the concerto starts with a New York feel to it. Barto played with precision and fimness when the music called for it. Other passages were played sensitively and gently without losing that jazzy theme.

The concert ended with the fabulous Brahms Symphony No. 1 which took Brahms about 21 years to write.

Christoph Eschenbach in rehearsal with HK Philharmonic – Brahms 1

I found this obviously older video of Eschenbach and Barto performing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Barto has since ditched the puffy sleeved shirt!