There was a time when the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was as familiar to me as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is now. That time was around 2000 and, as this was the most important orchestra in Hong Kong, the classical broadcast station I worked for sent a team along to almost every concert. So it was with interest that I settled in for this rare opportunity to hear this ensemble again. (It goes without saying that Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is a far more ambient space than a cramped broadcast booth shared with a producer, my Chinese-language colleague and one or two techs!)
As they filed onto the stage the first thing I noticed was the international look of the orchestra, with the brass section in particular having gleaned (male) players from Europe. Perhaps I remembered things differently but in the past the HKPO had the look of a local ensemble, apart from the odd Australian or British player. Ironically, the orchestra was in Australia as part of an ambitious five-city international tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden the interest was of course in the sound, not the ethnic make-up of the group. Having said that, the first item Quintessence was by a Chinese composer, Fung Lam, the first Hong Kong composer to being commissioned by the BBC.
Quintessence began with a sharp snap of percussion and busy strings then a shimmer of instruments including bells – music that at first appeared to evoke New York streets. But why New York? This was equally a recreation of Hong Kong’s frenetic and varied moods. With van Zweden driving the action the orchestra was a tight ensemble but there was some fine individual and section playing too. The harp was in tandem with lush strings for the most part, creating oddly ominous sounds in the background before the work exploded like a firecracker. It was exciting music, comparable to American music of the 1920s in its instrumentation, and not self-consciously Chinese. This was music for the world, played by a world orchestra.
Mozart has always been a popular choice for classical music lovers in Hong Kong so it was not surprising that the concerto was the violin concerto number four in D, K218 by the revered Viennese composer. The soloist was Ning Feng, an established artist with an international profile – and a 1721 Stradivarius. With the concerto seeming to express the essence of Mozart – repeated notes, arpeggios, and self-conscious phrasing – this was bound to be a highlight of the concert. Evidently the violinist had performed before with the conductor and it was a happy partnership, supported by the orchestra with its light touch. Feng’s cadenza was respectful of what went before with a few virtuosic touches. As I recalled from Hong Kong days, there was a lot of clapping after the first movement! The second movement relied on the soloist for quite a lilting feel at times even a yearning. There was a depth of feeling that brought forward more clapping although the conductor tried without success to head it off. Finally the third movement was not as well known but, despite a little uncertainty about tempo, it was a smooth performance, if not the most exciting part of the concert.
That was to come with the Mahler. His FIrst Symphony had many of the characteristics that would later identify the composer’s work – but the surprised contemporary critics were reportedly baffled by it. There was no such problem in the Melbourne Recital Centre, thanks to the confidence of the conductor and the tightness of the orchestra. The Bohemian origins of the work were more than hinted at in the first movement, the hunting horn above the low string sound. When the upper strings joined in the HKPO asserted its right to be called a major symphony orchestra, (if that were not already evident!).
The trumpet was insistent its smooth voice above the rather florid strings. Australian Meg Sterling’s lovely flute was heard above the mellow brass as the folk dance was recreated. Indeed, the brass was in particularly good form, responding to Jaap’s dancing style as he drew out a loud joyous sound from the orchestra. The winds dominated the next move part of the music with a lightness about the sound that recalled a ballroom waltz.
After all this dancing in the second movement, there was a long pause (following Mahler’s specific instructions), the drumbeat suggesting a funeral march, solemn and slow, joined gradually by the upper strings. The mood was tentative as it moved to a chorale, beautifully and convincingly supported by the background of the rhythm. The flute led to a reprise of the funeral march swinging to a carnival sound with an increase in tempo and falling back again.
The final movement brought a clash of cymbals, with brass to the fore, joined by the strings. With such complexity and denseness in composition, the conductor’s role was vital – and of course van Zveden did not disappoint, shaping every nuance and leading the orchestra to a positive conclusion from which there was no turning back. The audience followed the buildup of sound with bated breath before finally bursting into delighted applause, your reviewer enthusiastically joining in.