Music: Even Rach 3 gets drowned in a tropical monsoon

The musical life of Hong Kong was making all the noises its new masters wanted to hear last weekend, and with all tastes catered for. After the explosive multi-disciplinary extravaganza of Tan Dun's Symphony 1997 and Vanessa-Mae's Happy Valley Reunification Overture (yes, I'm afraid the voluptuous violinist is now a composer too), the Hong Kong Sinfonietta were sustaining the last gasps of festivity in a programme of specially commissioned scores with names like Hong Kong is a Mother's Child and Dream of a Hundred Years. And meanwhile, a few miles west along the South China coast, the game of cultural politics was being played with equal vigour on the neighbouring territory of Macau, as it hosted for the first time the Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition.

Macau is to the Portuguese what Hong Kong was to Britain: a distant colony acquired in dubious circumstances, which the Chinese now want back. They get it in 1999. Meanwhile, the Portuguese colonial government is going through the now-familiar process of pre-handover manoevres - with events like the Vianna da Motta Competition commandeered to play their part.

Vianna da Motta was a distinguished Portuguese pianist whose name means nothing in Britain but lives on in mainland Europe as the last significant pupil of Liszt. The competition was founded in 1957 in Lisbon and has taken place there ever since, producing a respectable number of star first-prize winners, including Viktoria Postnikova and Artur Pizarro. But almost as often as not, there has been no first prize at all, because the standards are so tough. It demands a lot of repertory, covering solo recital work, chamber ensemble playing, and concerti with orchestra. The choice is limited. And this year's relocation to Macau coincided with the monsoon at its height: a time when Macau is a swirling mudbath lashed by storms so terrible that one round of this competition had to be abandoned in mid-course. It's a novel experience, straining to hear Rachmaninov's 3rd Concerto in full force.

The other problem with monsoon conditions is that they affect the mechanism of pianos, which is why the competition had shipped down from Hamburg a "tropicalised" Steinway, its soundboard minutely perforated to accommodate swelling. But the perforations also limit sound projection; and in the poor acoustic of the Macau auditorium, a converted sports hall, the Steinway was a handicap for the contestants who chose it in favour of the alternative, brighter and untropicalised Kawai.

Add the fact that the concerto finals orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony, had clearly been flown in for reasons of cultural diplomacy rather than artistic excellence (it was risibly bad), and you'll appreciate why the standard of playing in the finals was not dazzling. Any sense of legato or of line came at a premium. Personality barely surfaced. And had it been up to me - as opposed to the Governor of Macau - it would have been another year without a first prize.

That said, however, there were some things to savour, not least the Straussian elegance with which Rustem Hairudtinof, a Russian based in London, toned down the warhorse qualities of the Rachmaninov 3 (continued da capo the day after the big storm), and the stylish technical assurance with which a Portuguese pianist called Jill Lawson played Saint-Saens's Concerto No 2. It got her second prize. The first prize went to Tao Chang - a 25-year-old from what the competition announcer emphatically called "Hong Kong, China" - for a slow, deliberate but rich-in-tone performance of Rachmaninov 2. In diplomatic terms it couldn't have been better : Portugal comes second, China first. The Governor was beaming. But before you write the whole thing off as fixed, I should say that the result was reached by a 14-person jury whose voting was conducted purely by arithmetic, with no discussion. The result was fair. And my only regret was that there couldn't be a prize for the concerto finals conductor, a young Anglo- Chinese called Leon Gee. It's a thankless task to conduct competition concertos: all responsibility, no glory, even in the best of circumstances - which these definitetly weren't. But Gee drew blood from stones. He proved a sensitive, supportive, listening accompanist; and with the Shanghai Symphony in front of you, that's no mean feat.

By comparison, the pianist Paul Crossley had an easy time of it when he played one of his all-Ravel programmes at the Wardour Festival - a new event, only in its second year, based in the hidden treasure of gilded neo-classicism which is Sir John Soane's Catholic chapel at Wardour Castle, Wiltshire. The brainchild of an audio-equipment manufacturer who lives in part of the castle, Wardour is a small, feelgood event, bristling with enthusiasm and potential. To catch it in its infancy was fun; and apart from the hard pews, Soane's chapel accommodated Crossley's Ravel very comfortably, as it did the Schubert of the Angell Piano Trio the night before. But I was amazed by the number of people in the audience who told me afterwards that Ravel is not the sort of composer who can make a programme by himself: that he is too oblique/ refined/ emotionally small. I don't say I've never heard this complaint before; but here was Crossley playing Miroirs, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and above all, Gaspard de la Nuit. These are not pygmy pieces: they outscale the salon. And Crossley plays them with a substance, weight and range of colour that to my ears makes a programme as complete as any.

What didn't, alas, make a programme was the LSO's brave but beaten attempt to rescue an old failure of Leonard Bernstein's, the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, at the Barbican on Monday. Written with Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist of Camelot and My Fair Lady, in the mid-Seventies, it was always a piece with strong credentials but no sense of purpose: a historical pageant that aspires almost to the seriousness of Russian 19th-century tableau opera but ends up as a Broadway song-and-dance romp through the lives of the illustrious residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, aka the White House. As originally staged, it lasted four hours, drew contemptuous reviews, and joined the cultus of failed musicals which garner fame by never being done.

This adaptation for the Barbican used a new concert version of the score, filleted down to its essential (if that's the right word) scenes with a spoken narrative to fill the gaps - much as the LSO did years ago with its hugely successful concert version of Candide. But A White House Cantata, as the piece has been renamed, is not in that class. It smiles emptily, all teeth, no bite. Its efforts to absorb some substance, with upstairs- downstairs vignettes of the not-so-White House servants sketching in American black history, are token. And the score never touches the energy-level of Bernstein in full drive. At best, there are a couple of near-classic songs, and a final chorus that approaches (but no more) the lip-trembling nobility of Candide's "We'll make our garden grow". And it was well performed under Kent Nagano, with Nancy Gustafson as all the First Ladies, Thomas Young as the ever-present black servant, and (perversely) the German Dietrich Henschel singing all the Presidents with resonant conviction, even if his dialogue sounded straight from Mittel-Europe. With members of the Bernstein family in attendance and the composer's son narrating, it felt like an event. And for collectors of concept musicals it was, if nothing else, something to file between Kurt Weill's Love Life and Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. But that's all.

Anja Silja's devastating, ultra-chic Emilia Marty in the Glyndebourne Makropulos Case is filed in the annals of British opera as the performance of 1995; and it's back again, in a revival of Nikolaus Lehnhof's production which seems to me to play the piece more for laughs - although perhaps that's because I was so mesmerised last time by the kinetic brilliance of Tobias Hoheisel's literally time-travelling set that I missed the jokes. They certainly register now, and they make Silja's tantalising, truly ageless portrait of Emilia even more extraordinary: a foil to the intensity of a not-beautiful but awesome voice. Andrew Davis once again gets knife- edge sharpness from the LPO in Jancek's relentless ostinato underlay. The audience goes wild, and Glyndebourne notches up another triumph, second time around.

`The Makropulos Case': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), Mon & Sat.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas