Lack of English surtitles leaves audience guessing



Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Over the past 21/2 decades, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta have grown to become a major force in classical music in Hong Kong. They were joined in this debut concert in Singapore by multiple prize-winning violinist Tseng Yu-chien and dance artist Chen Wu-kang.

Opening the concert with a work for solo violin - the monumental Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 For Solo Violin - rather than an overture or some other orchestral work, was unusual and possibly a first for an orchestral concert in Singapore.

Tseng's Bach was characterised by gorgeous silky tone, excellent intonation and impeccable technique. His was a calm, even-keeled reading, taking on variation after variation without undue drama, with an elegance and polish reminiscent of the late Nathan Milstein.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, and the HK Sinfonietta's opening bars were uncannily like Tseng's preceding Bach - rich and precise, with a warm balance and not rushed. Conductor Yip Wing-sie directed clearly and stylishly.

Tseng's formidable virtuosity meant that once again the trickiest passages were handled without fuss, peppered with brilliance.

But much as there was to admire in his playing, he failed to capture the greatness of Bach's musical architecture and contrapuntal genius and showed only glimpses of the fire and grandeur that fans of the Tchaikovsky concerto yearn for.

Dance artist Chen Wu-kang was the star of the second half, where he wittily narrated and danced the part of the devil in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.

He was the consummate story- teller. Together with two male dancers and one female, he captured the attention of the audience, with Yip and the seven musicians on stage providing energetic, jazz-influenced accompaniment.

Chen's narration, almost entirely in Mandarin, was punctuated with snatches of Cantonese, English and Hokkien, leading the audience along the tale of a soldier who sells his violin to the devil in exchange for a book foretelling the future.

Michael Lam's poetic libretto resonated with the audience. The great pity was that there were no English surtitles, not even an English summary of the Mandarin libretto in the programme.

At one point, Chen asked the audience in English if they understood the narration and there were some disgruntled murmurs of "no".

In some ways, Tseng's solo and concerto, and the narration and dance to the Soldier's Tale overshadowed the orchestra and conductor Yip. Concertmaster James Cuddeford was brilliant in the violin part of the Soldier's Tale and there are clearly other strong musicians in the orchestra, but the programming did not provide a chance to fully appreciate this or Yip's impressive conducting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Lack of English surtitles leaves audience guessing'. Print Edition | Subscribe