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Disastrous Mishaps Lead to a Tragic Performance

Hong Kong
Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall, Central
02/24/2009 -  
Samson Young: Electric Counterpoint for Nintendo Gameboy, electronics, and orchestra
Frederic Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Witold Lutoslawski: Dance Preludes
Béla Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, sz. 106

Sergio Tiempo (Piano), Johnny Fong (Clarinet)
Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Yip Wing-sie (Music Director/Conductor)

Concertgoers who attended Sergio Tiempo’s triumphant piano recital last Saturday should be very much impressed by his ebullient temperament, idiosyncratic interpretation, and transcendental virtuosity. Therefore, there was a great anticipation on his Chopin Concerto with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most disappointing and disastrous concerto in recent years.

This Arts Festival event on Tuesday evening opened with a world premiere piece by a local composer, Samson Young. This contemporary work entitled Electric Counterpoint was inspired by the old-generation Nintendo Gameboy, explained in the composer’s introduction speech before the performance. It was written for a full orchestra with some electronic effects (including the sound effect of a Gameboy), executed by the composer himself. The Gameboy, as an unconventional musical instrument, did create some fresh coloristic effects to this innovative piece of music. But the two large speakers on the stage and numerous off-stage speakers transformed the concert hall into a cinema with excellent surround sound. The music itself was likened to a cartoon movie instead of a serious musical work to be played in a classical concert. The ostinato-like figures and the regular, metronomic pulses soon led to boredom and tiredness.

Chopin’s 1st Piano Concerto was ‘originally’ the highlight of this concert. Sergio Tiempo recorded this work with Budapest Symphony Orchestra 20 years ago, when he was only 16 years old. Among his recordings, Chopin has taken a central role. Every concertgoer expected Mr. Tiempo to be very attuned and familiar with this pianistic masterpiece. However, the pianist left the audience nothing but disappointment.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta opened the first movement with a heavy-footed and over-serious introduction. Conductor Yip Wing-sie’s tempo was somehow rigid and studied, setting vivid contrast to Mr. Tiempo’s buoyancy. Mr. Tiempo entered the solo part with his typical sparkling octaves and scurrying runs. Subtle dynamic contrast, bewitching rubato, and glinting filigree, his trademark qualities, were rendered naturally and fluently. Where most pianists imbue a dragging pace in the enchanting second subject, Mr. Tiempo’s naturally flowing stream never stopped. But it was this whirlwind speed that brought him tragic consequence. When he rushed the coda of the first movement mercilessly, his rashly controlled fingers and memory slips turned one crucial downward scale into a disastrous indiscretion, leading to anxious shambles and predicament in both the orchestra and the conductor. Mr. Tiempo faked at the lower register for a few seconds, until the leader of the orchestra Le Hoai-nam cued the musicians at a strong chord for the soloist to join in again.

In the Romance movement, Mr. Tiempo continued to seem restless, while the prior incident kept having an unsettling effect on him. Although he was able to preserve his crystalline intonation and flowing phrasing, it often sounded as if the composer’s beautiful melodies and frequent moments of rapt expressivity were being hurried along rather unceremoniously. The tranquil atmosphere of this enchanting movement was also repeatedly destroyed by the burbled and unbalanced horn, which was the guiltiest part of the orchestra throughout the evening.

The third movement, though, with utmost vivacity and light-hearted sentiment, was still dispatched under the shadow of the previous disaster. The running scales near the end were buried amid faking haze at a reckless tempo. The whole concerto was finished in rush and impetuousness. Mr. Tiempo bowed with his head shaking and an obviously pretentious smile. Even though the audience’s response was not very apathetic, he left the stage with no encore. Hopefully this can be an important lesson for this 36-year-old pianist to become one of those consummate artists, who treat every performance with serious and solemn attitude.

Lutoslawski’s five-movement Dance Preludes were written for orchestra and a solo clarinet, played by the principal clarinetist of Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Johnny Fong. Mr. Fong's rendition had an extroversive and glittering tone, occasionally overwhelming. This was particular apparent in the second movement, in which the clarinet overshadowed the cello’s charming melodies, leading to an unbalanced texture.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, scored for two string orchestras, is generally regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces by the composer. The complexity of orchestration and the massive force brought immense challenges to the chamber-sized Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Although their intonation was not thick and profound enough to evoke Bartók’s darkness and roughness - the six cellos at the back were extremely frail - the music was carefully and neatly delivered. The third Adagio movement, rendered with stark dynamic contrast and chamber-scale intimacy, was particularly memorable.

Sergio Tiempo’s Website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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