Classics meet pop in crossover concert

| Bonnie Chen 1 Apr 2019

Classical music can be eclectic, this was what The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated in its "Philip Glass' David Bowie" concert, drawing a diverse audience.

The concert was part of the 2018/19 Swire Denim Series, where musicians dressed in T-shirts and jeans performed works beyond the classical repertoires. Concert-goers were probably lured by Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of British rock band Radiohead; Bryce Dessner, guitarist of American band The National; Philip Glass; David Bowie - names that are familiar to alternative rock music lovers. Probably movie lovers were attracted to the concert, too.

Andre de Ridder, who is known for exploring pop and contemporary works with orchestras, was the conductor.

In addition to his aggressive guitar performance, Greenwood, the multi-instrumentalist has also composed for movie soundtracks and orchestras. Last year, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his score for Paul Thomas Anderson's film "Phantom Thread."

Performed this time was a selection of works from Anderson's Oscar-winning movie "There will be blood" (2007) starring Daniel Day Lewis, which was set against the booming oil business in the 1920s in California.

Radiohead's melancholic mood continued with Greenwood's own works to a certain extent. The sinister quality of the people living in such a society was achieved by a series of spiky strings performance.

Across the ocean, Dessner may probably be the answer to Greenwood. A creative and artistic partner for San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the guitarist has written orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions.

Dessner's "Lachrimae" written for movie "The revenant" (2015) starring Leonardo DiCaprio about the legendary explorer Hugh Glass, was performed. The piece sounds eerie, yet agitated that fits in the explorative journey. Dessner was inspired by two different classical pieces. "Lachrimae" or "Seven tears" was a melancholy song written by English Renaissance composer John Dowland for lute in the 16th century. When writing the piece, Dessner was listening to Bela Bartok's Divertimento, which inspired him to write the tense string parts.

This was followed by works written by 83-year-old Steve Reich, hailed as the godfather of American "minimalist" music, which is made up of continual repetition of small motifs. De Ridder explains that both Greenwood and Dessner have played Reich's works. On the other hand, Reich has written works based on their music. Reich's early works used tape loops of actual speech to create a musical effect but African and Indonesian percussion such as the instrument marimba took precedence later.

Used in the movie "The Hunger Games," the "Three movements" was a vivid example that the percussion parts were highlighted especially in the first and the last movement giving tempo intensity, in contrast to the melodic part in the second movement achieved by woodwinds and strings against the percussion.

The orchestra on stage was set in an unusual way. Percussion parts including two marimbas and two vibraphones, which are usually set at the rear, were playing in front of the conductor. According to Reich, these percussion instruments play constantly and supply the ongoing rhythm, placing them in front of the conductor enables the orchestra to see and hear one unified rhythm direction. Also, the strings orchestras were divided into two parts to allow listeners to hear clearly, and Reich, who was inspired by Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg, says this could give listeners a feeling as if clouds are moving slowly across the sky.

Philip Glass' "Symphony no. 4, Heroes" was also performed. The six-movement piece was commissioned by the Twyla Tharp Dance Company for a symphonic ballet. It was inspired by the album "Heroes" in 1977, coworked by Bowie and Brian Eno, known as ambient music godfather. Bowie and Eno attempted to redefine pop and rock n' roll music by adding in world music and experimental avant garde music elements in "Heroes."

The songs in the "Heroes," album are mainly about Berlin, where Bowie once lived. Carrying the same names of Bowie's songs in the album, the six movements give different moods.

The glorious theme was brought out in a crescendo in "Heroes" which depicted a pair of lovers in Berlin. It then turns to the Middle Eastern sound in "Abdulmajid" named after Bowie's Somali wife Iman Abdulmajid. The mood of "Sense of doubt" and "Sons of the Silent Age" was achieved mainly by some woodwind instruments. "Neukoln" the name of an area in Berlin where many Turkish people reside, changed from a major tone to a minor tone as if depicting the hopes and desperation of the people. "V2 Schneider" was Bowie's tribute to German electronic band Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider. Bowie also made reference to the German designed ballistic missile V-2 rocket, which had inspired the American space program. Strings, woodwind, and percussion were used to achieve a jubilant ending.

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