© Hong Kong Tourism Board
© Hong Kong Tourism Board
The Hong Kong Arts Festival was launched in 1973, aimed at enriching the cultural life of the city. In 2015, it celebrates its 43rd festival with a programme which features many star quality international performers, whilst promoting local creative talent.

Leading the international brigade are Christian Thielemann and his Staatskapelle Dresden. They bring two programmes of central European classics which are staple parts of their repertoire. In their first concert, Strauss’ Metamorphosen is paired with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Metamorphosen, a study for 23 strings, is subtitled “In memoriam” and Strauss was lamenting the devastation caused by the bombing of Munich in World War II; he even quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony near the end of the work. Bruckner’s Ninth was left incomplete, the third movement earning the title of Bruckner’s “farewell to life”. Thielemann is renowned for his Strauss and Bruckner and this should be a very special opening concert.

Gustavo Dudamel © Mark Hanauer
Gustavo Dudamel
© Mark Hanauer

Their second programme contains Liszt’s symphonic poem Orpheus, more Strauss – Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) – plus the Siegfried Idyll, Wagner’s birthday present to his wife Cosima. It was first performed on Christmas morning 1870, by a small ensemble of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen… a pretty perfect start to any birthday! In it, Wagner uses themes he would later use in his third Ring opera, Siegfried.

Orchestrally, the other big hitters in this year’s festival are Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In their opening concert, Mahler’s mighty Sixth Symphony is the sole work. Starting with a fierce, menacing march, the symphony is perhaps Mahler’s most personal, sometimes attracting the nickname “The Tragic”. That first movement also contains a lyrical, soaring theme which his wife, Alma, claimed represented herself. The final movement is punctuated by three hammer blows, said to represent three key events which hit Mahler at the time: the death of his daughter Maria Anna, the diagnosis of his (to be fatal) heart condition and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera. On revising the symphony, Mahler removed the third hammer blow, but some conductors reinstate it.

Their second programme pairs John Adams’ City Noir – a work Dudamel and his orchestra premiered – with Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World”, composed while Dvořák was working in New York… an East Coast counterpart to Adam’s West Coast concert opener.

Vladimir Matorin (Sobakin), Alexander Kasyanov (Gryaznoy), Olga Kulchinskaya (Marfa) © Damir Yusapov | Bolshoi Opera
Vladimir Matorin (Sobakin), Alexander Kasyanov (Gryaznoy), Olga Kulchinskaya (Marfa)
© Damir Yusapov | Bolshoi Opera

The Bolshoi looms over the operatic and ballet stage at the festival. The Bolshoi Opera brings Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, given its Asian première here. It is based on Lev Mey’s story about Marfa Sobakina, daughter of a Novgorod merchant, who died shortly after her wedding to Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). Already promised in marriage to her childhood sweetheart Ivan Lykov, she’s selected from a line-up of over two thousand as the Tsar’s third wife. However, events are complicated further as she’s also lusted after by Grigory Gryaznoy, a henchman in the Tsar’s bodyguard, or Oprichniki, who were responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds during Ivan’s reign. Throw in Gryaznoy’s jealous ‘ex’, a dodgy German pharmacist, a love potion and poison and you have the suitably implausible ingredients of a classic opera plot. Productions are ten a rouble in Russia (it’s currently in the repertory of six Moscow companies), but it’s a rarity elsewhere. The Bolshoi’s production, new in 2014, boasts lavish sets based on Fyodor Fedorovsky’s famous designs for its landmark staging from the mid-20th century.

Not to be outdone by its operatic counterpart, the Bolshoi Ballet offers two productions; The Flames of Paris is set during the French Revolution, to music by Boris Asafiev. It was commissioned to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Russia’s own October Revolution and was said – unsurprisingly – to be Stalin’s favourite ballet. Alexei Ratmansky revised this Soviet-era blockbuster in 2008 and it contains spectacle aplenty. The Bolshoi Ballet also performs George Balanchine’s Jewels, a trio of abstract ballets entitled "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds" set to music by Fauré, Stravinsky (a frequent Balanchine collaborator) and Tchaikovsky.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre © Wing 1990hk (Wikicommons)
Hong Kong Cultural Centre
© Wing 1990hk (Wikicommons)

Another must-see on the balletic front is Cinderella from Dutch National Ballet, in Christopher Wheeldon’s production. Prokofiev’s ballet has often taken second place behind Romeo and Juliet, but it’s a cracking score and Wheeldon has pulled out the stops to present something contemporary and exciting: dazzling costumes, puppetry, flying furniture and witty choreography.

Baroque and early music is well represented with appearances Le jardin des voix and William Christie, plus Fabio Biondi and his energetic Europa Galante ensemble. Another stylish Italian period instrument band, Il Pomo d’Oro, features, accompanying star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in her popular recital programme “Drama Queens”.

On the chamber music front, pianist Mikhail Rudy performs three solo recitals until the title “The Sound of Colours”. It celebrates the 40th anniversary of Marc Chagall’s painting of the auditorium ceiling in Paris’ Palais Garnier. Rudy was friends with Chagall towards the end of his life and – in collaboration with the Chagall family – he has created an animated film using Chagall’s sketches for the ceiling, depicting some of the operas and ballets therein. The musical programme contains references to the same works or composers, such as Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and Ravel’s dizzying La valse.

Local talent is represented by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, with programmes celebrating Chinese classical music. “Music About China IX” is full of popular favourites, while “A Hong Kong Story Concert” features ancient folk songs, popular 1950s tunes and recent compositions to trace the emergence of Hong Kong’s identity. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta presents an attractive programme, including Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.

Chamber Opera Hong Kong presents Datong – The Chinese Utopia, commissioned by the Festival. With music by Chan Hing-yan, the opera focuses on Kang Youwei’s years of exile, as he campaigned abroad for a brighter future for China.

With an attractive mix of the local and international, Hong Kong Arts Festival, the cultural outlook is bright indeed.