re:mix and Friends
Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts
Sunday (13 October 2013)
You may call me a musical groupy, what with all that standing in line to get classical musicians’ autographs and attending Singaporean musicians’ and ensembles’ concerts overseas. My latest subject was the classy crossover string group re:mix on its Hong Kong debut. I was already attending The Joy of Music Festival (organised by The Chopin Society if HK) this week, and since violinist Foo Say Ming and his gang were performing a day earlier, so why not?
The HK Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA) is located in Wan Chai, and getting there from the MTR station is a matter of safely negotiating a rather long stretch of girl bars, gwailo pubs overflowing with hoards of street walkers. It were as if NAFA or YST Conservatory was placed right smack in Geylang or Patpong, probably no great harm for musical inspiration, but still…
The concert was held in the Academy’s concert hall, a nice sized auditorium fronted by a magnificent looking organ and slightly dryish acoustics, which still suited the ensemble pretty well. Like most re-mix concerts, the programme was filled with transcriptions and transmogrifications but it opened with an original work, Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture. Straight off, one was impressed by the tautness and cohesion in ensemble, and how crisp each phrase sounds. This group is known for its precise intonation and appropriate response to cues. As the temperature of the music rose, the intensity also peaked accordingly, reaching a feverish climax. This was immediately followed by Michael Nyman’s brief In Re Don Giovanni, with repetitive series of chords based on the D major triad with further embellishments thrown in with each ensuing repeat.
It was a very good way to make an initial impression, and leader Foo Say Ming then followed up with the impossibly camp solo for Fritz Kreisler’s Concerto In One Movement, a single movement relook at the first movement of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto in D major (Op.6). The principal themes are the same, but the accompaniment is “updated” to embrace whole-heartedly late 19th century and early 20th century Viennese schmaltz. Harmonies take on a heady decadence, with the harp’s arpeggios (played expertly by Hongkonger Barbara Sze) supplying the last word in outrageous affronts. With added woodwind and brass arabesques, one either loves it for its sheer craziness or hates it for its just being there. I am not a great fan of the straight-laced original accompaniment (imagine if Chopin had written six piano concertos) so I guess I’ll have to eat humble pie and enjoy it for what it’s worth, and perhaps wallow.
Say Ming as a soloist is no less than intrepid; the risks he takes are quite extraordinary in this hell-for-leather part. Never mind if there are moments of less than secure intonation in the thorniest passages, it is that live wire verve that comes through most winningly which makes live music-making such an enjoyable experience. Kreisler’s own recording is stuff of legends, but listening to it live lends an added dimension not to be found on disc. The players of re:mix respond splendidly as if this were a true masterpiece; everything is played to the hilt.
The second half was opened by guest performers Zephyr Flutes from Hong Kong, itself led by a Singaporean Poh Tiong Wee, in the first movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, arranged by Shaul Ben-Meir. Very pleasant and totally innocuous, this was merely a diversion from more transcribed high jinks, as everything else in the balance of the programme was inspired by popular music. I did not know any of the Hong Kong and Cantopop melodies in Dominic Sargent’s Do Not Worry - Medley Of Popular Songs (a crude translation of its Chinese title) but the local audience did, as audible humming emanated from somewhere deep in the circle seats. This enjoyable arrangement for both re:mix and Zephyr Flutes, accompanied by the composer on the piano (he also doubled up as one half of the evening’s hosts) was very well received.
Another local hero was violinist Michael Ma, Head of Strings at the Academy, who was the guest soloist in three Beatles songs arranged in the baroque styles of Bach and Vivaldi by Peter Breiner (the indefatigable Naxos arranger). Ma is a gentleman in his 60s who was also concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic during the 1990s. He carried a stooped posture (in fact he appeared more like a surgeon in search of an appendix than a musician) but created a wealth of sound with the minimal of movement or fuss. He did try out some groovy moves with his feet to the music of Help!, Girl, She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah, and then thought wisely to desist and concentrate on the music instead. It was a touching sight to see the duo of Ma and Foo, both heads of strings in respective academies, entertain the sizeable audience as if it were Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.
The balance of the concert was vintage re:mix in all those Kelly Tang arrangements that defined their sound and aesthetics. Latin favourites by way of Nat King Cole such as Aquellos Ojos Verdes, Quizas Quizas Quizas and Mona Lisa have become their unofficial standards, and it was pleasurable to revisit these oldies in their lush, warm string textures that is quintessential re:mix. The largely Chinese audience would have also responded to two Teresa Teng hits, Lover’s Tears (Qing Ren De Yan Lei) and Your Sweet Smile (Tian Mi Mi). I can never resist a chuckled whenever I hear the melody of Dayong Sampan in the latter number dressed up as a pizzicato polka a la The Simpsons. It remains one of the most amusing and endearing pieces that re:mix have made their very own.
Say Ming was once again under the solo spotlight for Jakob Gade’s Tango Jalousie, another flashy showpiece to compliment the earlier Paganini-Kreisler. Needless to say, it was another enjoyable romp. I don’t remember re:mix ever giving a concert that lasted over two hours, or one with an intermission for that matter, but this was Hong Kong, and the very enthused audience was rewarded with two encores, the iconic Shanghai Beach (its emphatic first three notes are immediately recognisable) and a totally un-rock like arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
It was a hard day’s night for the ensemble, and the rounds of post-concert drinks and late night bites at a Wan Chai Irish pub (sans streetwalkers) was their welcome reward and just desserts.