Thursday, 24 February 2011

A HONG KONG DIARY (20-22 February 2011) / Part I

Ever wondered why they call it Statue Square?

Sunday, 20 February

Face it. When it comes to music, the Singapore Arts Festival cannot hold a candle to the Hong Kong Arts Festival. I have been a regular visitor to the SAR’s annual arts fest since 2000, catching class acts in music which will not see the light of day at the Esplanade. The year 2002 was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (the Moscow Bolshoi Opera, no less), 2004 was Beethoven’s Fidelio (Berlin Komische Oper), 2008 was Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (Joanna MacGregor), and this year’s draw was Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan with two evenings of Bach (including my first ever experience of St Matthew Passion).

Did I mention Cecilia Bartoli? Having confirmed my flight tickets and hotel for three evenings, I found to my horror that the Italian mezzo’s gig on 22 Feb had been completely sold out! The official ticketing website had displayed “limited tickets”, which prompted my rash decision to book the flights, but that’s not the same as “no tickets”. Anyway hope springs eternal as I descended into the smoggy metropolis.

My ritual first stops after checking in – a cut price set lunch followed by a CD shopping spree at HMV. The exchange rate is decent (1 SGD = 6 HKD), so why not? Having braved the Sunday throng at Central (it’s the day off for the domestic help), Bach awaited at City Hall Concert Hall.

Hong Kong or Manila?

Someday I’ll get to hear all the 200 and more Bach cantatas, but at this time I’m happy to tick off those I’ve heard in concert or on disc, like some obsessed trainspotter. The Bach Collegium Japan is a period performance group with a small band (two per part) and a choir of not more than 20. I’ve heard their recordings, and they are as good if not better than the best in UK and Germany. It’s the light, lithe sound of their playing (as with others like Gardiner) that appeal to me most, rather than those dreary and heavy orchestral versions (no names mentioned) of less enlightened decades past.

Sporting a distinct silver mane, Masaaki Suzuki looks like some guru from the Zen temple of baroque. He conducts without a baton, looking clear and precise in his directions. I’d like to sing under him sometime. The soloists – soprano Hana Blazikova, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Gerd Turk and bass Peter Kooij – sing from within the choral ranks. They’re all very good, and the all-Japanese choir responds with a crispness and fervour that is hard to dislike. Close your eyes, and one thinks they are Germans.


They performed three cantatas, No.72 Alles nur nach Gottes willen (Everything according to God’s will), No.159 Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem (See, we are going up to Jerusalem) and possibly the most famous one of them all, No.147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). I don’t go to church services so often these days, but if choirs perform a cantata in place of some overlong sermon, I might be persuaded to change my mind. Besides the wonderful music, the words and their meanings come through very vividly. The message is not the usual popular feel good “God loves yer” (in those inane American-styled pop songs) but rather the burden of bearing the cross that Christians face, and the vigorous statement of true faith.

There was an additional number, Alles mit Gott (All things with God, BWV.1127:1-3), an extended aria discovered as recently as 2005. Soprano Blazikova sang it with great beauty. Her voice is light and penetrating, and the string accompaniment ever so sensitive. For the final cantata, the trumpet came in for a burst of festive colour, and there was that gasp of recognition from the audience when the chorale of Woll mir, dass ich Jesum habe arrived. That’s the same music as Jesu bleibet meine Freude, or what us English speakers say Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. A lovely way to close a lovely evening.

As safe as the banks of HK.

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