Interview: Andrea Fessler - Hong Kong International Chamber Music Fesival

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(Brian Chen, The Escher String Quartet and Orion Weiss)

The Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival shines with a special focus on Beethoven, founder Andrea Fessler tells Annie Wong

Over the past five years, Premiere Performances Hong Kong has hosted an annual melodic carnival of events that celebrate chamber music and support the creativity and collaborative efforts of some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians. The organisation opened its first Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival with a small group of just 11 musicians in 2009 and, with increasing praise and a desire to bring high calibre chamber music to Hong Kong and Asia, the event has developed progressively over time. This year, it’s a huge extravaganza. Between January 14 and 21, at various venues across the city, a powerhouse assembly is set to perform to packed houses.

In addition to the annual programme of the festival, the implementation of local projects as well as supplementary outreach programmes has skyrocketed and brought sweet euphonious music to our fragrant harbour year after year.

This year’s festival has an immense lineup of world-class musicians. “We have some exceptional chamber musicians coming along,” says founder Andrea Fessler. “The programme really is the quality you would expect to see at the top festivals around the world.” Returning as artistic director, Lin Cho-liang has chosen a stellar cast of musicians. “It includes cellist Lynn Harrell, who’s had a concert career that spans more than 50 years,” says Fessler. “We also have three top pianists – Wu Han from Taiwan, Kathryn Stott from Britain and Orion Weiss from the USA. In addition, we have up-and-coming string quartet, the Escher String Quartet, as well as Martin Beaver and Clive Greensmith, who are members of the Tokyo String Quartet, one of the top two string quartets in the world.”

As this is Lin’s fourth turn as artistic director, he has extensive experience in drawing artists to the festival and putting together a comprehensive programme. The pieces that Lin has chosen reveal different emotions as well. Some are powerful, while others are lush and filled with romance. Ultimately, the pieces are handpicked to bring classic, powerful cannons of chamber music to Hong Kong for the fest’s duration. Fessler praises Lin’s craft when it comes to creating the programme. “He has more than 40 years of experience,” she says. “Having a great artistic director is an essential ingredient to a successful chamber music festival.”

This year’s festival pays homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. It’s an overriding theme, with each concert having a subtheme of its own. Expect pieces from the likes of Brahms, Enescu and Schoenberg, to name a few. The eight-day fanfare opens with Viennese Soirée, which features Mozart’s five-player Clarinet Quintet in A, K 581 performed by Burt Hara and the Escher Quartet. It then advances to the Piano Trio in D, Op 70, No 1, otherwise known as Ghost, by Beethoven. The concert closes with Brahms’ String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 111, a four-movement masterwork.

With this year’s festival being in honour of the great German composer, Lin has included some of his most popular and earliest pieces, with the paired works all written by composers that have been heavily influenced by Beethoven. “Many of the programme’s concerts feature a work by Beethoven but Lin has also included unusual pieces like the Schoenberg Sextet and the Enescu Octet,” says Fessler. In addition to the lineup of the Viennese Soirée, she says: “We have included a programme of Eastern European music that includes Bartok from Hungary, Dvorak from Czech and Tchaikovsky from Russia.”

The festival finale night on January 21 begins with the energetic Piano Sextet in D, Op 110 by Mendelssohn, performed by Martin Beaver, Pierre Lapointe, Brian Chen, Lynn Harrell, Zhang Daxun and Wu Han. The closing night then heightens and dazzles with Rachmaninoff’s Suite No 2 for Two Pianos, Op 17, performed by Orion Weiss and Kathryn Stott. The night’s programme also features the dramatic Enescu piece, String Octet in C, Op 7, the inclusion of which might be a surprise to some. Its contrapuntal textures and complex four-cyclic movements makes it a work that is rarely tackled across the globe. “It’s not played often because it’s so difficult but it is one extraordinary and powerful piece of music,” says Fessler.


Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat, Op. 20 at the Opening Night Gala 2014

An outreach programme, developed by Fessler in tandem with the festival, acts as a complementary guide. It claims to ‘enhance people’s knowledge and appreciation of chamber music’ but also ‘encourages students in their chamber music endeavours with their own instrument’. Fessler and renowned violinist Leo Phillips host this year’s programme, which includes community concerts, open rehearsals, chamber music coaching, instrument masterclasses, appreciation lectures and pre-concert talks – all free and for the public.

Some of the performers have never met each other before but Fessler says that’s what makes it exciting. “The chemistry between the artists can really energise and excite the audience,” she claims. So, it’s all about introducing Hong Kong audiences to composers or pieces that they may not otherwise be familiar with, as well as promoting chamber music in its entirety. Fessler explains that, prior to the festival, ‘world class chamber music was relatively unknown in Hong Kong’. But now, she says, it’s on the up, for sure. “There are a lot of events going on here during the festival,” she says, “but what makes it so special is the fact that the artists and the repertoire are handpicked.” The jam-packed programme is set to further strengthen the growing culture and demand for chamber music in Hong Kong.

Festival highlights

Opening night: Viennese Soirée
City Hall, Concert Hall, Wed Jan 14
The 19th century is often described as a ‘golden era’ for the Austrian capital, Vienna. So, at the Viennese Soiree, selected works from Europe’s ‘city of music’ in this period are showcased to the crowds. Clarinettist Burt Hara returns to Hong Kong alongside New York’s Escher String Quartet to perform Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K 581. Beethoven’s haunting, ethereal ‘Ghost’ also makes an appearance.

Discovery and Nostalgia
HKU, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Ctr, Grand Hall, Thu Jan 15
Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1, No 3 opens the concert, followed by Lutoslawski’s Partita for Violin and Piano, performed by artistic director Lin Cho-liang and highly sought-after classical pianist Orion Weiss. The playful Dvorak Piano Quintet in A major, Op 81, with its elements of Czech folk music, closes the night.

Afternoon Fantasy
HKU, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Ctr, Grand Hall, Sun Jan 18
A musical way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Kyoko Takezawa, Andrew Ling and Richard Bamping are just three of the 15 artists who bring you a sparkling repertoire full of vigour and variety. The four-hand Schubert Fantasy in F minor, D 940, written during the last year of the composer’s life and dedicated to an unrequited love, is followed by Schoenberg’s String Sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op 4. And Beethoven’s Septet in E flat, Op 20, shows
just how innovative this piece was at the time of its premiere. Even more than 200 years later, the unusual, expansive forms sound fresh and unique.

Chamber Music Gala Concert
City Hall, Concert Hall, Mon Jan 19
Scores especially dedicated or written for small instrumental groups are celebrated in this traditional concert. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op 50, a melancholic and transcendental piece of work, is tackled by Wu Han, Kyoko Takezawa and Lynn Harrell, but not before Bartok’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano and Dvorak’s String Quintet No 2 in G raise the roof, proving that small-scale orchestras can pack a punch.

Festival finale: Musical Fireworks
City Hall, Concert Hall, Wed Jan 21
On the last night of the festival, the musicians and organisers come together and pull out all the stops with a fiery programme of piano works by Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff before they tackle the technically and mentally challenging Enescu piece, Octet in C, Op 7. Tickling the ivories are Kathryn Stott, Martin Beaver and Pierre Lapointe, among others. Eight of the festival’s best musicians, including artistic director Lin Cho-liang, take to the stage for the Enescu final.

Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival Jan 14-21, various venues. For tickets, as well as full concert and outreach programme details, see pphk.org.

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