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China Town, According to Oscar Wilde February 13, 2021

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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I was delighted to discover, in Oscar Wilde’s Impressions of America, the following description:

“San Francisco is a really beautiful city. China Town, peopled by Chinese labourers, is the most artistic town I have ever come across. The people—strange, melancholy Orientals, whom many people would call common, and they are certainly very poor—have determined that they will have nothing about them that is not beautiful. In the Chinese restaurant, where these navvies meet to have supper in the evening, I found them drinking tea out of china cups as delicate as the petals of a rose-leaf, whereas at the gaudy hotels I was supplied with a delf cup an inch and a half thick. When the Chinese bill was presented it was made out on rice paper, the account being done in Indian ink as fantastically as if an artist had been etching little birds on a fan.”

A fitting quote to savour at the beginning of Chinese New Year. In 2022, we celebrate the 140th anniversary of Wilde’s visit to America. Let’s get ready.

Envy of the Future http://ow.ly/SXWe0 October 3, 2015

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.

Envy of the Future http://ow.ly/SXWe0

“Pride and Prejudice” and its Irish Connection March 16, 2015

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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We have read the book as part of our general reading curriculum, and have probably seen the TV series and the movie, so do we need to see a play adapted from Jane Austen’s celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice?  And why the Gate Theatre, one of Dublin’s cornerstone dramatic companies, in the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival?

Not that I remember much of the story – I’m not even sure I can claim to have read the book cover to cover, and I watched the movie haphazardly on the plane a few years ago – so I was keen to refresh my patchy memory.  After all, it’s important that as someone who claims to have studied literature I should be able to carry on a conversation about such a stalwart tome of literary fame.  Besides, I was driven by an intense sense of curiosity.

Many years ago, an old friend and mentor, who had once apparently given medical advice to Micheàl MacLiammóir, introduced me to the Gate Theatre that he and his partner Hilton Edwards founded in the 1920s.  I certainly own more copies than the average person would of his output – his memoirs Enter a Goldfish, a photocopy copy of Theatre In Ireland, a tape of his one-man show I Must Be Talking to My Friends, pirate copies of The Importance of Being Oscar and of him reading his memoirs for the BBC in five instalments and his joint effort with Eavan Boland  W. B. Yeats.  I even have a copy of Put Money in Thy Purse, his account of the filming of Orson Welles’ Othello.  Surely, aside from Yeats and Lady Gregory, MacLiammóir must have done more than anyone for drama in Ireland?  Unfortunately, despite having visited Dublin a couple of times, I have never watched a performance at the Gate.  Hence the rush to get tickets for Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Austen does a fine job with her characters.  One cannot help but feel sympathy for the harrowed Mr Bennet, surrounded by six women in his family whose strengths and weaknesses he thoroughly understands.  The “headstrong” and independent-minded Elisabeth; the sedate but somewhat dreamy Jane; the studious but not very talented Mary; the bouncy Kitty; the scatterbrain Lydia; and the hysterical Mrs Bennet, whose sole concern was to marry his daughters off to fortune, are enough to drive someone with a less robust constitution quite mad.

James Maxwell’s adaptation skilfully preserves the wit of the story and adds colour unique to the dramatic medium.  While the tortuous courtship of Mr Darcy and Lizzy Bennet takes centre stage, the crisp dialogue makes the story come to life.  Alan Stanford’s staging enlivens the production with double-takes and throwaways between Mr and Mrs Bennet.  The simple set of a small book-shelf on one side of a large room which transforms into a ballroom with the help of servants and officers is ingenious.

No stage production is ever complete without fine acting.  Lorna Quinn is undoubtedly star of the show, not only in the importance of the part, but of her studied portrayal of the conflicting feelings for Mr Darcy that rip her apart.  Sam O’Mahony as Mr Darcy, on the other hand, appears lacklustre by contrast, probably constrained by the nature of the character and its motivations.  The sisters all deliver credible performances, with Aoibhín Garrihy’s Jane standing out as the best.  Quietly stealing the show, however, are Stephen Brennan and Marion O’Dwyer as Mr and Mrs Bennet respectively.  Their small gestures and interactions totally at cross purposes to each other provide a comic edge to the play.  By the way, Deirdre Donnelly’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the very embodiment of the worst in the British class politics a couple of centuries ago.

The Gate Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice showed me how wrong I was to think that Jane Austen’s well-worn novel had been done to death.  It’s fresh, lively and enjoyable.  In the programme notes, I also learned that the author’s connection to Ireland is more than meets the eye.  Although she never married, she was apparently once linked, possibly romantically, to Thomas Langlois Lefroy of Limerick, who rose to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whatever the excuse, kudos to the Hong Kong Arts Festival for bringing the Gate Theatre production to Hong Kong.

Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John and Avril Lavigne – questions about pricing November 14, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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As a student of marketing, I am fascinated by how product pricing influences consumer behaviour, and my love of music led me to a search on iTunes over the weekend which prompted me to make a few interesting observations.

I was considering downloading five albums:

  • New and Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney
  • The Last Ship by Sting
  • The Diving Board by Elton John
  • Avril Lavigne by Avril Lavigne

Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John have been around for donkey’s years, and I’m excited that they have all released new material recently.  Avril Lavigne shot to fame with her début album Let Go when she was only 17 in 2002, having appeared on stage with Shania Twain at only 15.  Fresh from her marriage to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger in July, she has also released a new studio album.  Since I have all her four previous albums, I’m keen to complete the collection.

It’s amazing that even after all these years, Paul McCartney is still able to churn out material that sounds relatively fresh, and his New album has received decent reviewsKisses On the Bottom is a collection of old songs from the 30s and 40s that McCartney apparently grew up with, but he surprises us with a new song he wrote in the style of the oldies called “My Valentine”, in which Eric Clapton is said to have a hand.

Sting was the lead singer for The Police for many years, until he ventured on the solo path in 1981.  His musical detours in recent years include an experiment with the music of English composer John Dowland, who predated baroque composers Henry Purcell and Vivaldi.  In 2009, he released a studio album If On A Winter’s Night featuring 14th century carols and tunes by Bach and SchubertThe Last Ship plumbs the depths of pain felt by those caught up in the demise of the local shipping industry.  Yet my favourite is a real softie unrelated to the album’s theme called “Practical Arrangement”.

Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, has gone back to her rock ‘n’ roll roots with an attitude. I love the way she says “…What if you and I/Just put up a middle finger to the sky/Let them know we’re still rock ‘n roll…” in “Rock And Roll” from her latest album.

As I surveyed the albums by iTunes, I discovered that New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board are available in both deluxe and ordinary editions.  Typically, the deluxe edition has a few bonus tracks and costs more.  Yet, all deluxe editions are not created equal – some are at a higher premium to the ordinary edition than others.  If you buy the entire album, deluxe New is 16.7% more expensive, but you do get 16.7% more tracks; similarly, deluxe The Diving Board is 25% more expensive for 26.7% more tracks.  The Last Ship is a real bargain, as it gives you close to 42% more tracks, but costs only 25% more, which means that per track the discount is close to 12%.

All five albums offer two download options for both editions: by album or by selective track, with the latter being more expensive per track than the former.  If you download the entire deluxe New album, you pay 22.5% less per track, but if you do the same for The Diving Board, the discount is almost 40%.  In the ordinary edition, the discount in the album rather than by track download is steepest for Kisses On the Bottom – a whopping 61.3%; New and The Last Ship offer the smallest discount of 22.5%.  Individual track downloads cost US$1.29 each,  standard across all albums and editions.

Assuming you download the entire album, New is most expensive among the deluxe editions,, at US$1 per track, whereas The Last Ship is the cheapest, at US$0.79 only, as the latter has 19 tracks compared with the former’s 14, or almost 36% more.  Does this mean Paul McCartney is able to command a higher price than Sting?  Not really, as in the ordinary edition, Kisses On the Bottom is half of the price of New per track, but Sting is the next cheapest, at US$0.80.

If you look at the total amount of cash you have to fork out to download the albums, Kisses On The Bottom will set you back only US$7.99, but New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board cost a standard $11.99; Avril Lavigne is in between at US$10.99.

If you’re interested in the detailed comparisons, the following table gives you a snapshot:


The above comparison touches on many questions we often come across in pricing a product:

How much should we charge for a product – what is the cash outlay we believe a consumer is prepared to pay for it?  Why does Paul McCartney charge a lot more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom?  Why are Paul McCartney’s New, Sting’s The Last Ship and Elton John’s The Diving Board more expensive than Avril Lavigne’s eponymous work?

  • How many variants should we offer, and what sort of discount or premium should we charge for one versus another? Why does Avril Lavigne not offer a deluxe edition of her album, nor does Paul McCartney his Kisses On the Bottom?
  • Does our brand deserve a premium against another brand, or can do we need to sell ours at a discount?  Why is Avril Lavigne’s album 8% cheaper than any of the others, but contains more tracks than some and less than others?
  • If we offer different sizes of a product how much more should we charge for the larger volume version?  Can the incremental cost justify the incremental value?  Should we offer a discount for the larger volume, and per unit of measure how big should the discount be?  Why does Sting offer a bigger discount per track for the album download than Elton John?  And why does Paul McCartney charge the same per track for both the deluxe and ordinary editions of New, irrespective of whether you download only a few tracks of the entire album?

In the end I downloaded the entire Kisses On the Bottom, The Last Ship and Avril Lavigne albums.  It didn’t make sense to download a few tracks at a substantial premium, as I have a predilection for owning full albums anyway.  I previewed New and The Diving Board and withheld purchase – I wanted to think more about whether I should pay 50% more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom.  All my downloads were of the ordinary editions, as I didn’t believe the bonus tracks in the deluxe editions justified the additional spend.  In other words, I didn’t believe the incremental value I would derive from the additional tracks was commensurate with the incremental outlay.  I didn’t buy all five albums as the three I did buy cost US$31, about the amount I was comfortable spending that day.

I have now finished listening to all the albums I bought, and am very happy with my purchases.  It’ll be interesting to see whether, in time, I decide to buy New and The Diving Board as well.

The links below will take you to the iTune pages for the various albums mentioned in this post:

Paul McCartney New

Paul McCartney Kisses on The Bottom

Sting The Last Ship

Elton John The Diving Board

Avril Lavigne Avril Lavigne

Spam is not always this amusing… August 4, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Language.
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For those of you old enough to be around before personal computers became a permanent fixture in everyday life, spam had a different meaning.

In 1937, the Hormel Foods Corporation introduced a meat product called “Spam”, which is still available today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of spam is apparently an abbreviation of “spiced ham”.

As the Internet started to take hold of our lives, the word became a pariah in polite company, taking on the meaning of unwanted electronic messages sent to a large number of recipients at the same time.

This modern usage of the word “spam” is said to derive from a sketch from the British comedy Monty Pyton set in a café in which every item on the menu is spam.

In 1975, the Monty Python comedy team produced a movie called Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  If you’re interested, you can watch it here.  The movie further spawned a Broadway musical in 2005 called Spamalot, which claims to be “lovingly ripped off” from the movie.

Most of us are not amused when we receive spam, which often jams our mailbox and prevents us from getting to the genuine messages of importance, but I’ve recently received a message from one Pandit Vikram, who claims to be “in charge of Sovereign Wealth Funds” in Citibank.  You may recall that no so long ago, a gentleman by the name of Vikram Pandit was CEO of CitiGroup.

The fun doesn’t stop here.  Mr Vikram promises that he can arrange an interest-free grant to me of US$10.5 million, which “will stay on CitiBank Books for 36 months” and then written off.

Mr Vikram goes on to say that Sovereign Wealth Funds in his charge usually remain dormant for years “because some leaders of the United Kingdom who made the initial deposits intended to steal the funds after leaving office”.

Unfortunately, Mr Vikram says, these depositors “are either kicked out or killed in office”.  That’s why, he continues, the funds “go into dormant mode”.

And what does this privilege of an interest free grant (someone needs to prompt Mr Vikram to look up the word “grant” in the dictionary) cost me?  40% of the US$10.5 million, apparently.  This is how much of the “grant” I need to “set aside” for Mr Vikram.

What am I to do?  I need to send Mr Vikram all my personal details and a scanned copy of my “identity”.

If you’re interested in having your identity stolen for US$6.3 million (60% of $10.5 million, after setting aside 40% for Mr Vikram), please let me know and I will give you his personal email and telephone number.

Spam on…

The Philadelphia Orchestra ends its Fortieth Anniversary China Tour with Wagner and Brahms in Macao June 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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June 9th, 2013
Venetian Theatre, Macao
Richard Wagner Overture to Tannhäuser
Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Allegro non troppo

Adagio non troppo

Allegretto grazioso

Allegro con spirito

 The Philadelphia Orchestra
Conductor: Donald Runnicles

A casino is an unlikely venue for an orchestral performance, and it’s a mystery why the Philadelphia Orchestra chose to stop at the Venetian Theatre on its 2013 Residency and Fortieth Anniversary Tour of China.  In 1973, at the request of President Nixon, the orchestra had been the first to perform in China upon the establishment of diplomatic relations.  According to an article in the New York Times, nine players in the orchestra today were apparently on the first tour.  For them, the two-week visit must bring back fond memories of a very different China.  Conductor Donald Runnicles hit a nostalgic nerve when he talked about how members of the orchestra were about to go their separate ways the next day after two weeks of bonding.

The Venetian Theatre is a grand auditorium, probably a hundred feet from floor to ceiling, with plush seats found in modern movie theatres rather than concert halls.  I can imagine the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera having a field day sliding all the way from the middle of the hall to the stage.  Yet its acoustics are unkind to a symphonic orchestra, the combined effect of a flat hard ceiling and plenty of empty space creating delayed reverberations.  This created a cushion effect on the music, sometimes even muffling it.

Call him a serial philanderer, bigot or megalomaniac – for he was probably all of these – but there’s no denying that Richard Wagner possessed a vision which drove him to write operas on a breathtakingly gargantuan scale that bowl over even the most disinterested concertgoer.  His oeuvre is more than enough for a lifetime’s study, and I have long given up the quest to understand the complex Ring Cycle.  Yet the overtures to many of his operas are gems of orchestral grand gestures and expressive languor.  The Overture to Tannhäuser is a case in point.  The opening chorale on clarinets, bassoons and horns, in a sustained murmuring tone, develops into a hauntingly lyrical passage on strings.  An interlude on woodwinds blossoms into a majestic brass flourish underpinned by insistent triplets on strings.  Scurrying string dashes pave the way for more march-like grand gestures, before a period of pensive placidity sets in with sprinklings of solo violin.  All the trappings of the orchestra then converge to bring the overture to a climactic close in a flurry of nervous energy.  In a nutshell, the music captures the story of Tannhäuser’s entrapment by Venus, and his odious behaviour which ruptures any hope Elisabeth may hold for his love, causing her to die of despair.

Sitting in the front row, I heard the strings and woodwinds with crystalline clarity.  The delayed echo in the hall softened the sharp edges and made the strings sound quite lush.  Unfortunately, the brass section at the back became second cousins and was hardly able to flex its usual muscles in bringing out the chest-puffing and tear-swelling grandeur so characteristic of Wagner.

Compared with his first symphony, which took a decade and a half to complete, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D was a relatively painless composition, which he finished in four months.  Unlike the first, its bucolic sentiments give it lightness not typical of his works.  His approach to music is diametrically opposed to the wanton romanticism espoused by Wagner.  As the cellos and horns at the opening die down, a quiet passage gives way to a boat ride down the undulating river on strings tutti.  Many have pointed to the similarity of the material in the first movement to the lullaby from his Op. 49, exposing a childlike appreciation of nature.  The second movement is restless but not depressing, peaceful but not lethargic.  Pizzicato cellos and a lilting oboe in the third movement introduce a light skip around the fields, while the fourth movement sounds like a locomotive cranking up speed as it leaves the station.  Brahms eventually throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix in a race of frenetic energy to close.

In contrast to the Tannhäuser Overture, the strings in the Brahms symphony seem to have lost a little lustre.  The woodwinds continued to shine, while the horns and trombones emerged from obscurity.  Maintaining Brahms’ stately character, Donald Runnicles nevertheless brings out the lighter moments with panache, driving the strings to near breaking point to a triumphant close.

Concluding a relatively short programme, the orchestra played the brief Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with sprightly brass in full blast from beginning to end.  With smiles of satisfaction, the Philadelphia Orchestra bid China farewell by betting that their performance of Wagner and Brahms at the Venetian Theatre would leave indelible memories, and they did.

James Rhodes holds court in a soiree at the China Club in Hong Kong March 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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When James Rhodes holds court in a soiree billed as “An Unconventional Recital” at the China Club in the Old Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, we are entitled to expect some fun.  And we were not disappointed last night.

As we seated ourselves in the dining hall cleared for the evening, Club founder Sir David Tang expounded his views on how concerts should last no more than an hour, and promised the evening would start promptly at 7 pm and finish at 8 pm.

On the dot at 7 pm, James strode into the hall and, instead of chatting about what he was going to perform – a practice which has become his trademark – he went straight to the piano and started playing a piece by Rachmaninov (the Prelude in C sharp minor, I think) – an  item not on the programme – with electric intensity.  He explained that he had “Rachmaninov” tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic, which could well say “Elton John” for all he knows.  Down-to-earth, charming and your regular guy next door: that’s what James Rhodes is all about.

Most of us think of Beethoven as the angry deaf composer.  Yet barely out of his teens he had been nearly beaten to death by his alcoholic father.  He single-handedly took classical music into the romantic period with a “big R” – for the first time, here was someone writing not for the church or the state, but for himself.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, is an odd work.  Almost halfway through his 32 sonatas, it marks the crucial point at which he became convinced he was going deaf.  Yet the work shows no obvious depression, nor is it given over to much brooding.  The four movements are hardly distinguishable, running more or less into each other, linked often by material that keeps re-appearing in different guises.

James Rhodes’ interpretation was polished, subdued and exploratory; the left hand gently tapping a persistently repetitive rhythm, while the right scaling the sounds of nature.

For someone whose works remain stubbornly in play throughout the world, Chopin was apparently not a very nice person, ruined by a disastrous relationship with George Sand.  His Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor is the more popular among the four he wrote.  The signature opening of the work consists of quiet arpeggios followed by emphatic chords.  The rest then flows mellifluously in roller-coaster fashion.  In James’ hands, the Scherzo sounded warm and friendly, but a little staid, as if he was trying too hard to de-romanticise it.  I heard a few extraneous notes too.

Responding to our clamour for encores, James surprised us with what sounded like Beethoven’s Colonel Bogey Dudley Moore used to mischievously play, except I think he added snippets of the “Moonlight” Sonata towards the end.  Next up was an excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a lilting work that hangs in the air like little water vapours, which he dedicated to Sir David.  To finish off, he served up a piece he claimed not to have played for a long time, a transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s Spring Night, one of 160 songs he composed during the year he courted Clara Wieck.

As we savoured the rapid outcry at the end of Schumann’s love song, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for Sir David’s generosity in bringing James to Hong Kong and opening the China Club specially for him on a Sunday night.  Most of all, we were proud to count James as a friend who happens to be an excellent pianist, rather than a virtuoso we put on a pedestal.

Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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It’s been a busy couple of months for concert-going. I was fortunate enough to visit six different concert halls in five cities to sample performances by some of the world’s finest musicians.

During a stop in London on April 24th, I saw Leif Segerstam conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev in London’s Royal Festival Hall.  I found Segerstam a bit of a plodder, in a programme of works by Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – “respectful, subtle and down-to-earth”, as I said in my review for Bachtrack.

It was my first real stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the end of April, and was delighted it coincided with the city’s eponymous orchestra performing in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts under Sir Simon Rattle.  I was keen to find out how Maestro Rattle would fare with an American orchestra going through Chapter 11, having swept the world off its feet with the Berlin Philharmonic.  In a programme of Brahms, Webern and Schumann, he gave me some interesting insights into works which shared similar origins but took different paths of development. 

The Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia

In October 2010, I saw Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s dynamic Music Director, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.  My heart goes out to him, as he must feel the breath of Mahler down his neck, the famous composer having been his predecessor as conductor of the orchestra a century ago.  The performance in the Carnegie Hall on May 2nd was impressive enough, and a reviewer taking copious notes in the next seat remarked that the concert was “pretty good”, but I preferred what I heard some one and a half years previously.

For many years, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, part of the Place des Arts complex in the heart of Montréal, was home to the city’s world-famous orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal – OSM).  Having steadied itself under Maestro Kent Nagano after reeling from a few years of turmoil with the departure of Charles Dutoit, who brought OSM international recognition, the orchestra seems to have picked up the pieces and pulled itself together.

I was lucky to get into the OSM’s concert at the end of May featuring Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, not often performed as a symphonic work in its entirety.  For a change, I sat in the balcony this time in the orchestra’s new home, La Maison Symphonique de Montréal.  I was never a fan of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, where at one point I heard only muffled sound under the balcony covering half of the lower level of the hall; I was equally unimpressed by La Maison.  With a large number of wooden surfaces, it sounded too much like an echo chamber.

I had it on good authority that Kent Nagano had just returned on the morning of the concert with the OSM from Munich, where he had been working on the première of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Bavarian State Opera.   He showed no sign of fatigue as he raced his way through a fine programme of Berlioz and Shostakovich, in addition to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé, the latter featuring Cirque Éloize.

Closer to home, I had my first experience with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, smaller than the Hong Kong Philharmonic but with a fine reputation for innovation and audience development.  It was quite refreshing to hear conductor Jason Lai in fairly demanding and well-known works by Arvo Pärt, Mozart and Brahms.  The Sinfonietta and piano soloist Yeol Um Son, 2nd prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, challenged very high world standards and did well.

The change of guard at the Hong Kong Philharmonic is already taking place.  Outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Edo de Waart said his farewell in an emotional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in April, and the music director designate, Jaap van Zweden, arrives later in the year for the new season.  The two concerts I heard in the past couple of months featured guest conductors Johannes Wildner and Jun Märkl, the former’s lacklustre interpretation of Debussy’s La Mer having been saved by the soloist Garrick Ohlsson, while the latter put in a truly exceptional performance of works by French composers with clear Spanish themes in collaboration with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

I can’t imagine my lucky streak with world-class orchestras and soloists will continue for long, but I’ll relish it while it lasts.

Rozhdestvensky &the Hong Kong Philharmonic – comfortable but a little wobbly March 21, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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The programme billed him as “The Legend”. Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdesvensky – tongue-twister of a name that gave me lots of trouble as an upstart radio announcer years ago – led the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky programme on Saturday March 17, 2012.  Joining him in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44 was his wife, pianist Viktoria Postnikova.  The Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, took up the entire second half of the programme.  The experience was like walking on a thick carpet – very comfortable, but a little wobbly.  Read my full review at Bachtrack.

The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.

The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.

It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary.  With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it.  That is not to belittle Rose Kingston.  Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.

I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile.  Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.

Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts.  Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.

Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother.  Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly.  Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.

The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context.  The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed.  The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies.  The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.

The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me.  Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin

Sunday 5th February, 2012

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival