I sat sipping a glass of unidentified red wine and staring at a copy of the painting Amitié by Chen Yifei one evening early this month. Although the painting, which sold last year at Sotheby’s for over HK$17 million, was shown from a projector, the intimate moment that it captured between two women wearing cheongsams was moving. It was easy to initially appreciate the gentle brushstrokes, the soft pastel colours used and the beautiful details in the painting.
I watched the image while sipping a beautifully perfumed glass of mystery red which our host, Dr Joseph Pang, had brought. He was the conductor this evening, guiding a small group of friends through his journey of wine, art and music. The first wine was definitely a Pinot Noir with its sensual floral and spicy perfume and pale colour.
The first piece of music Dr Pang played was the Flower Duet from Act 1 of Lakme by Leo Delibes, a hauntingly beautiful aria which made me think about the closeness between the two women in Chen’s painting: A young woman in a light yellow cheongsam leaning slightly forward as another woman in a blue cheongsam adds a hair ornament onto her bun. However, it is the intimate backward embrace of the woman in yellow and the seriousness of the woman in blue that is especially poignant.
As the music changed from Delibes to Ah guarda, sorella from Act 1 of Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart, a second red wine was poured. This one was also clearly a Pinot Noir, but darker and denser leaning more toward dark cherries and strawberries rather than flowers found in abundance in the first wine. As the music played, the wine in front of me took on an emotional tinge – the first red wine was about hope and optimism while the second red was about sadness and seriousness.
When I asked Dr Pang what inspired him to create this wine, music and art experience for us, he replied, “I first saw Amitié by Chen Yifei (1946-2005) in an article in the SCMP…last April. I was struck by the intimacy and sensuality of the two women and intrigued by their possible relationship. Apart from the visual impact, I started to imagine what my olfactory sense would experience if I was a fly on the wall in their boudoir.” His other goal in pouring two Pinot Noirs blind were to see which wine fit with which woman’s personality in the two paintings.
The small group of us, just ten people, were asked which wine we would associate with which woman in the painting. The results were mixed but it was clear that trying to link the wine with the image in front of us while soprano duets played in the background made us think more deeply about wine and the painting. The overall mood of the Amitié painting is clearly sad and serious. The woman in yellow, bowing her head, is clearly afraid of what is about to happen. She seeks the support and strength from the woman who is placing something in her hair. The woman in blue has an aura of seriousness and toughness and will clearly be strong enough for the two women to face the inevitable.
The first wine with its delicate perfume but firm personality was for me very clearly the woman in blue, the stronger and more optimistic personality. The wine was the 1995 Domaine Dujac Chambolle Musigny “Les Gruenchers” 1er Cru. The second wine was more serious with a sombre personality despite its bright red berry fruits; I associated it with the woman in yellow who was seeking support and comfort. This serious young wine which I thought was possibly a Grand Cru or excellent Premier Cru Burgundy turned out to be Frederic Becker’s 2007 Kammerburg Grosses Gewachs (equivalent to Grand Cru) Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Pfalz, Germany!
We listened to two more pieces of music, the Che soave zeffiretto from Act 3 of Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart and the Adagio from the double clarinet concerto by Franz Krommer. Each time the music changed, it was as though I was appreciating the painting anew. The wine evolved in the glass and the surrounding story between the two women seemed to come to life.
We had a wonderful time discussing what moment was being captured in Chen’s painting, with the music providing different moods and food for thought. Dr Pang came to this conclusion: “They are sisters after all, but they do not look very alike because their father has several wives, and they have different mothers. One is preparing her closest younger sister for an arranged marriage. The latter is apprehensive (see her expression), and is reaching backwards, literally and metaphorically, for the life and relationships she will soon be giving up.” Interestingly, my version of the two women’s story was exactly the same – that the two women were definitely related and the one in yellow was being sent off to get married to a man not of her own choosing.
Joseph Pang isn’t the only person experimenting with wine and music. Clark Smith, founder of a Californian wine consultancy company called Vinovation, has spent months with various tasting panels sampling wines with hundreds of different songs. He offers some broad tips such as Pinot with “sexy” or classical music and Cabernet with “angry” rock music. Smith believes that wine tasting requires the same logical processing areas of the brain as listening to music – it stimulates the same area of the brain that appreciates food, sex and other pleasures in life. This mini experiment in Hong Kong made me think about the convergence of mood and music as well as art in wine appreciation. I am happy to volunteer myself to any such experiments in the future.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post