New Spirits from Hong Kong’s Artists
DiMenna Center for Classical Music
“New Music from Hong Kong”
Austin Ho-Kwen Yip: Die Lian Hua for solo flute – The Poetess for flute and piano (U.S. Premiere)
Chi-hin Leung: The Groove is in the Groove for solo piano (U.S. Premiere)
Cynthia Chi-Wing Wong: Trace of Butterfly for flute and piano (U.S. Premiere)
Wendy Wan-Ki Lee: Sprinkles and Splashes for solo harp – Whirlwind for flute and harp (U.S. Premiere)
Galison Lau: Six Sketches for flute, harp and piano (World Premiere)
So Ka-wai: Lonely Octans for solo flute (World Premiere)
Donald Man-Ching Yu: The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna for flute and piano (U.S. Premiere)
Linda Chatterton (Flute), Rachel Brandwein (Harp), Aristo Sham (Piano)
R. Brandwein, L. Chatterton, A. Sham (© Samuel T. Dog)
“Tell me where you live, and I’ll tell you how you compose.”
When it comes to Hong Kong, composer Schumann’s quote would have no meaning. Having spent a good time of my life there, it was evident its six-million knew where they lived, yet nobody knew their answers on who they were. Thanks to the vagaries of the British Empire–which was granted Hong Kong Island and its adjacent territories in the mid 1860’s, after fighting for the principle that Her Majesty’s had the right to sell opium to the natives–Chinese students never learned about the Opium War or their history of what particular citizenship they might have.
Nor does the PRC educational system give an “objective” look to the last 70 years of revolt and starvation and little and big five-year plans.
Taipans can afford to buy British passports, but the unwashed masses might consider themselves Chinese or “Hong Kongers” or British protected citizens or demographic question marks. In other words, they had–or perhaps have–no pride of origin. And the music I used to hear from their composers reflected these amorphous details.
Few chamber works were played when I lived there except in the excellent Academy for Performing Arts. Hong Kong orchestral music, though was performed by conductor David Atherton. He was considered quite the martinet for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but he did make an effort to play as many contemporary Hong Kong composers as possible.
Alas, the results were mainly similar. Each work had a poetic title harking back to ancient Chinese poetry: Climbing the Mountain, Looking at Lilies in the Pond, Watching the Herons Fly to the Sky. All of which had as much to do with Hong Kong as their English-language textbooks originally published for Suffolk young ladies.
Musically, with a few exception, the works under Mr. Atherton’s baton were variations on Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. Many of the students studied in China, and the Chinese composers had studied in Stalinist Russia (where “formalist” music was verboten.). So we had brassy, kitschy openings, middle sections using a Chinese instrument and pentatonic folk-tune, and a grand finale of more brass and more gongs and percussion.
That, though, was several decades ago, during the 1980’s and 1990’s. So I was mildly surprised to hear the change we had last night, with three superb soloists playing the music of seven quite deft young composers. Each knew their modern harmonies, none of them dabbled in atonalism, a few of them worked in bits of Chinese music, but none could have been considered “ethnic” in any forceful sense.
Even more important, they had three performers who, if anything, transcended their notes. Harvard student Aristo Sham played the Steinway with a sensitive touch, faultless technique and unnervingly stolid countenance. It was a shame that he had only one solo work, but Chi-hin Leung’s The Groove is in the Groove was a real challenge.
Like Henry Cowell, Mr. Leung seemed to use different rhythms for left and right hands. It wasn’t jazz, but it was highly syncopated, went at lightning speed, and the bouncy left hand blended in–perhaps too perfect a blend–with the right-hand fireworks.
For the other works, Mr. Sham played mainly with Linda Chatterton, a flutist of equally astonishing ability. I do confess that, while I have nothing particularly against flute music, a whole evening of flute (with harp and piano) sometime had its longueurs for this listener. Still, the opening solo, Austin Ho-Kwen Yip’s folk song, gave a virtual encyclopedia for modern flute players.
The piece seemed to be strophic, based on a poem. But Ms. Chatterton played it with the usual flutter-tonguing, key-tapping, singing with the tones, breathy and harmonic sounds and other esoterica. It was impressive, as well as her later seven pieces by the same composer with Mr. Sham. She seems to have no problems at all.
Nor does her frequent partner, harpist Rachel Brandwein. Composer Wendy Wan-ki Lee wrote an equally challenging work for solo harp, but more interesting was a duet called Sprinkles and Splashes. Interest did sag for awhile, but in the middle, Ms. Brandwein played some unexpected Medieval chords on the harp, music which woke me up quite pleasantly.
Nothing was pretentious about any of this music, yet one heard a sameness. Not a monotony, since the performers were so wonderful. But the sense that the composers had learned well (most at the Academy for Performing Arts). Besides this, flute and harp have–what Ms. Chatterton called, partly sarcastically–that “pretty-pretty” sound.
G. Lau (© Samuel T. Dog)
Those instruments with piano made up an unpretentious (though never un-ambitious) work for the trio. Unlike the others, Six Sketches had no titles, they were like extended bagatelles for solos or all three artists. Mr. Lau understands how to blend this unlikely trio with music which never outwore its welcome, which was original and pleasing, and didn’t depend on any “effects” for its success.
I still didn’t have the slightest idea, after the program (produced by Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office), what “Hong Kong music” could or should be. From my own viewpoint, perhaps reversion to that brassy Soviet style in orchestral works could touch on heretical calls for the same political feelings which are topmost among the young educated people of the...the...territory? City-state? Chinese possession?
Like the music, it is difficult to classify this magnetic place. The words “country” or “nation” instill an emotional feeling. “Empire” gives radical patriotism. “Colony” engenders even more emotion.
Poor Hong Kong and its composers, though, are living in an area which reeks of bureaucratic dullness . To speak with pride about being raised in a “Special Administrative Zone” is an oxymoron. When they change that name to something more creative, these highly talented, very original composers may unleash their own hibernating, hopefully zealous creative spirits.