Friday, 7 September 2012

Playing His Own Tune

Pianist Yundi Li opens the HK Philharmonic Orchestra's season
Tonight was the season opener for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra with pianist Yundi Li as the headliner.

I haven't seen him perform in years and some of my colleagues worried Li was slipping in quality in the last few years.

Was it precipitated by recording label Deutsche Grammophon dropping him in 2008 or after?

And then there are the obvious comparisons between him and his contemporary Lang Lang... they could not be more different.

Nevertheless, I was still keen to see Li as were many others who packed out the Concert Hall at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The HKPO has a new music director, Jaap van Zweden, but tonight it was guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky setting the tone for the 2012-13 season.

He led the orchestra to a rousing Festive Overture, Op. 96 by Dmitri Shostakovich that was energetic and lively, particularly with the extensive percussion section.

Shostakovich wrote this a year after the death of Stalin, which for him led to the beginning of his rehabilitation after being officially condemned in the 1940s.

The piece was for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1954 and the commission was originally given to a minor Russian composer named Vasili Nebolsin.

However Nebolsin freaked out and as the deadline approached, he still hadn't composed the score.

He turned to Shostakovich who agreed to help and what came next was a flurry of activity from the composer who apparently wrote non stop and talked and made jokes at the same time.

Talk about multitasking.

The next piece was also by Shostakovich -- Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70.

This time it was the wind instruments that were featured in the score and again the first movement was full of energy and then dissipated into a slow movement, followed by a haunting third movement with lots of brass playing ominous-sounding notes and then ended quickly in a militaristic-sounding fourth part.

During the 20-minute intermission, I waited in line for the loo and overheard two angry "bus uncles" verbally sparring with each other.

One was complaining that the other made a lot of noise during the concert, while the other retorted that he was not allowed to get something out of his bag? That he was not allowed to drink something?

The latter sounded very defensive, as if his human rights were trodden on, while the former was trying to point out that this was a concert situation where you were supposed to sit quietly. The ironic thing was that both were wearing T-shirts in this battle of sophistication.

Meanwhile the Cultural Centre staff didn't seem to know how to diffuse the situation -- they were obviously not given training for incidents like these and the two men kept shouting at each other for a while.

Eventually the argument died down and I didn't see what happened in the end except the hallway was much quieter without them.

Finally the grand piano was rolled out and Sinaisky accompanied Li out onto the stage.

Li had cut his hair, which in a way took away some of his personality, but he was still his same skinny self.

He performed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, the first few bars of which most of us recognize.

At first it seemed Li was nervous, as he rushed at the beginning, but then he calmed down and focused on playing with the orchestra.

However, his chords and arpeggios sounded muddy or did he make a few mistakes? I don't know the score well enough to determine that.

He was very focused on the task at hand -- if he had a free moment, he was already working his fingers on the keyboard to prepare for his next entry into the music again.

Li is definitely not an exuberant performer while Lang would be very dramatic with his hand gestures and body movement, intently swaying with the music and taking his audience along with him.

On the whole Li still plays technically very well and after he got over his jitters he played well.

But when his performance was over, Li looked more relieved than elated which was strange.

We all clapped nonstop after he and the conductor exited and re-entered the stage several times and each time Li bowed until the lights went up and we realized we'd get no encore.

This was very disappointing, considering Li is the adopted son of Hong Kong, receiving residency in the city in 2006.

Would it have hurt to have played a short one to two minute piece for us?

Maybe Li prefers to project the image of a pure artist who will only play what he wants to play and that's it.

In interviews and profiles on him, it seems he shuns sponsorships and even talking to the media to avoid promoting himself, perhaps preferring his music speak for him instead.

In any event we enjoyed seeing Li again, though sometimes you have to give the audience a bit of a teaser to make them want more of you; Li didn't seem to want to flirt with the crowd.


  1. "We all clapped nonstop after he and the conductor exited and re-entered the stage several times..."

    So did you enjoy the concert overall then?

    Re the bus uncles: Hmmm, did the one making noise during the concert not realise that people are indeed not allowed to drink (or eat) inside the concert hall?! Also, hmmm, I don't see what what they were wearing had to do with things -- and yes, I do feel I can wear t-shirts to classical music concerts since t-shirts and classical music are both things I like! ;b

  2. Overall the concert was good... what did you think?

    I was surprised the second guy didn't explain that the first guy wasn't allowed to drink in the concert hall.

    I'm just trying to make the point that they were each trying to be morally more superior but wearing T-shirts doesn't really help the situation...

  3. Hi there --

    I generally liked the Saturday concert I attended. Yundi Li, alas, appeared to be the weakest part but the majority of the audience sounded -- with their thunderous applause -- like they still are his fans.

    Re the T-shirts: hmmm, I guess you are a believer in the saying that "Clothes maketh the man", I take it? :b