Wednesday, 16 October 2013



Here I am back in Hong Kong for another helping of musical treats organised by the Chopin Society of Hong Kong – The Joy of Music Festival, and held at Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Primarily an international piano festival centred around the 1st prizewinners of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition (which the Society also organisers) and other laureates, it also features chamber music, which have been an added delight.

Monday (14 October 2013)
Recital by Past and Present
Students Of Eleanor Wong

The festival opened with a recital by four piano students of leading Hong Kong pedagogue Eleanor Wong from the HK Academy of Performing Arts. Her students have won important prizes at major international piano competitions and represent the acme of Hong Kong’s piano talents.

Johnson Li Zhong Xin (above), only eleven years old, has been tipped to be the next Lang Lang, having been taken under the wing by the Chinese phenom himself. That might just be an underestimation, as I think he may be the next Glenn Gould. In Bach’s French Suite No.5 in G major, one would expect note perfection and rhythmic accuracy at the very least. He delivers those and more. He sounds like he knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and how to get it without affectation or extraneous gestures. He strides confidently on stage like a pugilist and sits at the edge of the piano stool; his feet barely touch the pedals and he cannot sit any higher! His sound is clear, the notes and passages are precisely articulated without idiosyncrasy or other effects that colour Gould’s playing. After the breathless Gigue, he followed with Chopin’s First Impromptu in A flat major (Op.29) which showed he understood the nuances of rubato and the suppleness of tonal colour. Li is certainly not a cookie-cutter prodigy, and I expect to hear more from him in years to come.  

Tsang Hin Yat, 20 this year, has also gone by the name of Mozar Tsang (Mozart sang, get it?). He is nattily attired in white, looking every bit the part of a cruise ship pianist or a Liberace wannabe (minus the candelabra). Thankfully, his playing is as serious as they get, beginning with Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, a night piece in homage of John Field rather than Chopin. He shades the short but dark work quite beautifully, bringing out its subtle dissonances over an uneasy calm of cantabile, before drawing out a brief but turbulent centre. His big work is Schumann’s Humoreske (Op.20), the longest work of the evening, and one not easily programmed within the confines of a recital. Its half-hour could be laborious listening, but Tsang varied its myriad moods and sections well. Schumann sang in the achingly lyrical opening and the ensuing allegro was well contrasted. In short, he made one listen through its longeurs and his technique is well up to the work’s demands. Only the final section came across as repetitious but that was before he romped home on a spirited high. Perhaps we can hear some “Schuber Tsang” from this fine young artist.    

Professor Eleanor Wong with her students, (from left)
Colleen Lee, Rachel Cheung, Mozar Tsang and Li Zhong Xin.

Rachel Cheung, now 22 but a finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition as a teenager, is already a celebrity of sorts in the SAR. Her recital comprised two 20th century sonatas. Leos Janacek’s Sonata “On The Street” was conceived as a requiem in memory of a worker killed in a 1905 riot in Brno. Overlooking its socialist overtones, it is a dark and bitter work in which Cheung was sensitive to its every note and phrase. The sense of foreboding was ever-present and she maintained that tension quite expertly without going into overdrive. The “Death” as portrayed in the second movement was swift and violent (as murders tend to be) and the catharsis seemingly unresolved (as all premature deaths are) by the work’s quiet end. Almost completely different in tone and mood, but equally convincing in performance, was Bartok’s Sonata. To these ears, Cheung’s take was refreshingly free of the usual percussiveness and banging, the sharp and angular contours smoothed over by a musicality that was utterly convincing. The slow movement was plain-speaking, and although I don’t know the Hungarian language, I can only guess what she was saying would have been a result of her two years of studying with Peter Frankl at Yale. Similarly, the relentless pursuit in the finale impressed by its sheer pace and stamina, and again in full control of all faculties.

Colleen Lee is the senior colleague in this company, having just crossed over the competition circuit age-group into the reality of adult concert life. What she has won in terms of prizes was brought to bear in her recital; she is a finished product of years of studies, training and competing. And she is a totally musical soul, as her reading of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue showed, with full attention paid to colour, texture and sonority. The spirituality of its musical language shone through in its lachrymose themes, arriving radiantly in the arpeggiated Choral section. Through the dizzying fog of the final Fugue, light and clarity - not to mention digital brilliance - illuminated the way.

By now the audience had been treated to music from the Baroque to the 20th century, and it was for Lee to finish off with a living composer’s music. The choice of Nikolai Kapustin’s Variations was totally astute, given that its subject is that opening bassoon melody from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the centenary of which is celebrated in this festival. Her approach was cool, even nonchalant, but that allowed much of the grace notes and harmonic nuances to be better savoured, and when the heat was on, she turned on the quintessential jazzman’s swagger to complete the concert with great aplomb.

HK Chopin Society President Dr Andrew Freris
with the score of Lavignac's 8-hands masterpiece.

Hong Kong has very much to be proud about with its surfeit of piano talent, and Eleanor Wong was rightly acknowledged for her inimitable contributions. All four pianists finally converged on the single Steinway keyboard for the delicious and totally frivolous Gallop-Marche by Albert Lavignac which brought down the house. Now that is something the ex-Bukit Damai piano quartet of Neil, Boris, Etienne and yours truly should try out sometime! 

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