Hong Kong Festival Orchestra and Voices, conducted by Eric Whitacre, performed mostly Whitacre’s own compositions on 20th August, 2016.
The concert began in almost complete darkness, with the spotlight on Whitacre only, starting with Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (Light & Gold). The pronunciation of the Latin text was generally accurate, but the “Ca” of the word “Calida” was not well synchronized among the soprano singers unfortunately. The parts were quite well balanced with a well-judged phrasing and a fine treatment of chordal progressions, despite some small inaccuracies. One could sense the glowing light and the shimmering beauty of the piece. The following piece was Jonathan Newman’s Blow It Up, Start Again, which the orchestra failed to give a convincing account of this piece. Their performance was not focused enough and also a bit slow, making the piece less energizing. At times, the musical direction was lost, and Whitacre did not succeed in making the densely packed thematic materials stand out.
The concert was followed by Whitacre’s The River Cam, with James Lo as the cellist. There were some impressively attractive moments, with much melancholy and sentiment, in spite of the rather linear tone production and occasionally limited volume from the soloist. There was a good vibrato continuity and clarity in Lo’s playing, though. It would be preferred that there was a stronger supporting bass line from the celli and double basses. The flowing motion of the river could have been better depicted in the orchestra’s playing.
It was then Whitacre’s choral work, Cloudburst. There was a well-planned build-up towards the climax and a sense of expressive impulse. The tone clusters had a pleasing balance, with each voice carefully layered. In addition, there was a good imitation of a sudden thunder by claps. It was a pity that the articulation of the text needed more clarity, and the snaps by the fingers, which depicted the sound of rain, did not fade away gradually in the ending.
The orchestra and voices then performed Whitacre’s very interesting composition, Godzilla Eats Las Vegas, with a script written by Whitacre himself. There was an easily understandable translation from the story to the music. The stepping, screams, imitation of a terrier barking, use of whistles were effective in telling the story and communicating directly with the audience. There were various musical styles employed in this piece, which were well handled by both the choir and orchestra, and quotations from some famous pieces, such as the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. The orchestra and voices eventually pulled off an energetic, thrilling and imaginative performance of this work, with the Music Director of the orchestra, Sean Li, in a Godzilla costume on the stage. However, the volume of the violin section was sometimes insufficient; and the dramatic intend of this piece could be even better realized if the contrast between sections were more marked.
After the intermission, the choir performed Whitacre’s well-famed Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. The effect of the repeated C notes sung by the soloist would be better if the soloist completely followed the indications on the score (mf – f – p), instead of around mp at the end of the solo section, so as to allow a better fusion with the rest of the choir. There was a slight loss of focus in the middle section; and from bar 88 (con moto) onwards, the dynamic changes needed more refinement and attention. “The Flight” section was performed with a high level of precision, but the wind by the tenors and basses at the ending was a bit too forceful. Throughout the piece, it somehow lacked a rich supporting line by the basses, affecting the balance among the parts.
The performance was followed by Whitacre’s Equus, which is indeed a complex and technically demanding piece, requiring great concentration from the players. Marked “moto perpetuo” (and also as introduced by Whitacre), there was the same rapid motion throughout the work, which was done quite accurately in general. There was a palette of tonal colours from the orchestra and the energy and fury in the music was fully revealed. The motives, including those depicting the racing motion of a horse, were handled with care. The orchestra and choir succeeded to give a pretty persuasive account of this work with splendour, and this piece was probably the most impressive one throughout the entire concert. The percussionists should also be commended for their technical and impassioned rigour.
Here came Whitacre’s Deep Field, in which the audience could also perform by using a phone application to play an electronic soundtrack. It was an innovative idea to do so, but practically speaking, it had caused some noises due to inappropriate usage of phones during the performance. There was a slowly built-up, shimmering crescendo, and the choice of harmonies somehow revealed the beauty of nature, with the slideshows of photos of the universe. The soundtrack played by the phones had allowed the choral voices to float in the air, enhancing the beauty of this work, but the dynamic range could be further widened, otherwise, it led to expressive austerity at some moments in the performance.
The concert ended with Whitacre’s meditative, otherworldly composition, Sleep, which was indeed a fitting conclusion for the concert. The eternal beauty in the music was unfolded by the rich harmonies with a gratifying sense of balance. There was a perfect diminuendo al niente, which was breathtakingly beautiful, as this piece ended.
Eric Whitacre’s music was easy to comprehend and affective, which was one of the reasons why he had quite a lot of supporters. Such a phenomenon is common around the globe. Seemingly more difficult to understand and requiring a lot of knowledge, classical music happens to be gradually neglected. This prejudice restrains people from exploring into the world of classical music. In fact, one can sense the beauty in the music as long as he or she has imagination and cultural literacy. Some music, which is more approachable for the general public, like Whitacre’s, actually may be able to foster the public’s interest in classical music (of course not talking about pop music). Nevertheless, to effectively raise the public’s awareness for classical music, there should be more exposure to classical music in early childhood, which can be done by both the government and music organizations, to instil early passion in classical music in the next generation.