Trapped in a Smash at Wilton’s

There are some words that make a concert-goer’s heart sink. For me these include “experimental”, “fusion”, “cross-over”, “wunderkind” and – after last night’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall – “virtuoso harmonica player”.

It’s rare for me to feel trapped at a concert, fervently wishing for it to be over, but last night was such an occasion – the second half at least (the first half was pretty good apart from a horrifically hammered out Bach Passacaglia, of which more later). This was a concert by musicians from Hong Kong’s Music Lab as part of the Hong Kong Music Series. The first item of the second half – ‘Beethoven Rhapsody’ – filled me with dread, and rightly so. It was the kind of music I hate: a “mash up” (or “Smash”) of riffs, motifs and idioms from the rock group Queen (geddit?!), the Beatles and the old radical himself (quotes from the fifth symphony and Pathetique sonata). There followed schmaltzy ballads, film music (by Morricone) and the world premiere of ‘Ideology’ by Hong Kongese harmonica player CY Leo, who has won numerous competitions with his playing. The work was a vehicle for this young man’s staggering virtuosity, displayed in fiendish Baroque-ish figurations and any number of squawks, breathy whispers, bends and myriad other sounds which I couldn’t begin to describe. It was as if Larry Adler himself had been reincarnated at Wilton’s Music Hall…… and I didn’t like it one bit. The concert closed with something called ‘Invierno Fantasia’, which started unnervingly calmly, but, given what had gone before, it was only a matter of time before it exploded into another manic fusion of rock, jazz, classical and “Cantopop“. It was the sort of music which makes me want to set my hair on fire and put it out with a hammer.

It wasn’t that it was badly played. In fact the whole programme was, largely, extremely well played by young musicians from Hong Kong who displayed great enthusiasm and commitment in their music making. Saxophonist, Timothy Sun, modest of stage presence yet immensely resonant and nuanced of sound, and soprano Alison Lau, whose voice had a sweetly searing clarity, were a pleasure to hear, as was pianist Lai Bo Ling, who accompanied violinist Mark Hui, both musicians with sensitivity and mature musicality, despite their tender years (all the musicians were in their twenties, some as young as 21).

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I am usually suspicious of concert programmes which advertise themselves as “experimental”. Often it is just a handy term to suggest something edgy and out there, which actually turns out to be a less than well-conceived programme in which the performer or performers have basically been given license to do what they like. This Music Lab concert at Wilton’s Music Hall (the first of two as part of the Hong Kong Music Series) certainly felt like that. It was as if the programme planner had thrown the components of a concert up in the air and simply watched where they landed without any thought for a theme or linking thread throughout the programme. Maybe the intention was not to have a common theme, and the programme certainly felt  like three separate concerts in one evening. What it did do was give a platform to a group of talented young musicians. The pianist and director of Music Lab Kajeng Wong provided a degree of continuity to the evening: he introduced the concert and performed in most of it, and, whether by accident or design, rather stole the show with his versatility and personable stage presence.

The concert opened with Kajeng Wong as ‘Fingerman’ in a solo performance intended to “explore the concept of God in an experimental classical piano recital”. I was not clear exactly what was “experimental” about this. A delicately nuanced  performance of Arvo Part’s ‘Für Alina’ revealed Wong as a sensitive pianist in this work of supreme simplicity and profound meaning. As he played, enigmatic words and phrases were projected onto the back of the stage – “God or no God”, “Could we return to the silence before the first note”. Unfortunately, for those of us in the forward rows of the theatre, these were often obscured by the open lid of the piano (and this continued to be an issue during the second segment of the concert).

From Pärt, he moved into the frenetic realms of Ligeti’s Étude ‘The Devil’s Staircase’, a work of fiendish technical challenges, which Wong managed with ease and panache, brilliantly paced and quite thrilling to watch and hear. The final work in this segment was Bach’s monumental Passacaglia BWV 582, arranged by Emile Naoumoff (one of Wong’s teachers). Originally for organ, this arrangement sought to imitate on piano the expansive resonance and plangent bass of the organ. It started well, with intent, conviction and a clear sense of the music’s architecture and contrapuntal lines, but as the music grew in statue, so Wong’s sound became strident and ugly. It was impressive, if only for the pianist’s attempt to play at full volume, hammering the keys as if his life depended on it, but more subtlety of touch would have been welcome here: it is possible to play loudly without thumping the piano…… During the performance, philosophical quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ were projected onto the back of the stage. I’m not convinced these projections added anything of significance to the performance and since there were no programme notes, I was left none the wiser. In fact, it seemed a rather pointless gimmick to me.

‘Beloved Clara’ was a retelling of the story of the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in short works by all three composers, performed by Bo Ling Lai (piano), Mark Hui (violin), Alison Lau (soprano) and Kajeng Wong. As in the first segment, text was projected onto the back of the stage comprising quotes from the Schumanns and Brahms and snippets of their biographies. It was rather simplistic and clumsily-translated and was often obscured by the lid of the piano and the violinist, but despite this, ‘Beloved Clara’ was the highlight of the evening for me, the music performed with great elegance, empathy and tenderness.

Certainly, it was an “interesting” concert, but I admit I wanted to leave almost as soon as the second half began. A word too about the printed programme, which was attractively designed and produced. If translating into English from another language, do try and have the text proof-read by a native English speaker. As in the Beloved Clara text, there was some clumsy and unnatural translating which a decent copy-editor could have put right in a moment. Details like these really do matter.

 

Date reviewed: 10 July 2017

Music Lab at Wilton’s Music Hall

 

 

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