This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival was a gigantic feast of the performing arts, with performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Carlo Opera from Naples, American Ballet Theatre, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Britain’s National Theatre, Jordi Savall and our good friend Martin Fröst, so we were in stellar company. Fortunately for the ACO, our schedule included a couple of free nights, so many of our musicians were dashing off to catch performances by these outstanding artists before our intensive concert schedule kicked in. I went straight from the airport into a performance of Philip Glass’s hypnotic and extraordinary multi-media genre-bender Einstein on the Beach and was captivated throughout its five-hour, unbroken span.
Across four performances in the Hong Kong City Hall, Richard and the Orchestra performed music ranging from Haydn and Mozart to Ligeti, Dean and Alice in Chains. I had the pleasure of hanging around in the foyers during intervals and after concerts, eavesdropping on comments (although the Cantonese commentary largely escaped me). It’s hard to say what impressed the audiences most: many were raving about Richard’s impeccable playing of Mozart; others loved the rush of energy in the ACO’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence; many Australian-inflected voices were gushing proudly about The Reef. Perhaps the South China Morning Post’s notoriously harsh critic captured it best:
The manner in which violinist/director Richard Tognetti elicited that quality from his ensemble was exemplary. Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings hit the spot better than I can ever remember. Lightness of touch and a matching tone pervaded from start to finish; long, gracefully-spun melodic contours flowed effortlessly; not a single note was interfered with unnecessarily. Exquisite.
After the last concert in Hong Kong, the Australian Consul-General, Paul Tighe, hosted a warm-hearted reception at the stunning China Club. The China Club occupies the top three floors of the old Bank of China building, now dwarfed by its modern, I M Pei-designed successor next door, and Norman Foster’s coat-hanger-inspired HSBC building on its other side. In what used to be the executive staff quarters of the old building (from the time when I M Pei’s father was the Chairman of the Bank of China), Sir David Tang, Hong Kong’s über-British style guru and founder of Shanghai Tang, has created an oasis of chic, Shanghai-art-deco elegance where its cheongsam-clad staff serve heavily-poured gin and tonics and offer trays of perfectly crafted Cantonese dim-sum. From past experience I knew not to take a sip of the G&T until after my (unslurred) speech.
When the musicians boarded the flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, there seemed to be a lot of new-looking luggage at the check-in desk: Louis Vuitton cases, Birkin bags and Bottega Veneto wallets – evidence that a few people had found their way to Mongkok, or perhaps across the border to global rip-off capital Shenzhen.
There were a couple of quiet days in Berkeley before the concerts began, and several members of the Orchestra took the opportunity for a couple of day trips to places like Yosemite National Park or the surfing coast of California. In fact, for a moment I thought we might need to despatch a search party up to the Napa Valley as the rehearsal time loomed.
Returning to Berkeley, California, where the Orchestra has performed several times in the last few years, there was a wonderfully warm reception from the audience. The CalPerformances series at University of California, Berkeley is one of the most prestigious performing arts series on the West Coast, and its wonderful Director, Matias Tarnopolsky (former Director of Artistic Planning of the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic), puts together an annual program of the top musical performers in the world today. Far from asking his visiting ensembles to perform war-horse repertoire, he welcomed two typical ACO-style programs which really showed what the Orchestra is about. Again, superb reviews followed, including this from the San Francisco Classical Voice:
Dressed in solid black, with all but the cellists standing, the Australian Chamber Orchestra made an imposing visual impact on the Hertz Hall stage in Berkeley Saturday night. Appearances promptly became irrelevant when this superb, often startling ensemble began to play. With their warmly grave tone and daringly punctuated phrasing of the opening Adagio in Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, “La Passione”, the visitors from Down Under served notice that this was not to be any ordinary night of music making. Artistic Director and lead violinist Richard Tognetti, who leads his ACO from behind the first violin music stand, had his players off at a dizzying sprint in the Allegro. But there was much more than speed and momentum. Haydn’s glorious 49th became a hall of wonders in this peak performance, somber, spirited, effusive and gripping.
Written by Timothy Calnin, Australian Chamber Orchestra, General Manager.