Thursday, 4 May 2017


Esplanade Concert Hall
Monday (1 May 2017)

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's third visit to Singapore (the previous occasions were in 1983 and 1999) was part of its tour to mark the 20th anniversary of the former Crown Colony's return to China, where it retains a Special Administrative Region status. The orchestra turned professional in 1973-74, and thus has a five year head start over the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. 

We Singaporeans have a sort of unspoken rivalry with Hongkongers over such things as economy, standard of living, food and shopping, and whether we have a world-class transport system (they do, we don't) et cetera.  In a way, this rivalry even extends to our orchestras, and here was a chance for Hong Kong to parade its musical crown jewel for the first time at the Esplanade.

By the way, Hong Kong's own Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, home of the HKPO, came up during the early 1980s, thus establishing yet another head start (this time of some 20 years) over Singapore. Let's not even discuss about international piano competitions, of which HK has held four editions since 2005, to our big fat zero (OK, we do have one really good international violin competition, but just one edition so far). One thing which Singapore does not have, and which the City of New York would soon gain, in 2018 is the HKPO Music Director Jaap van Zweden. He was what made the difference between the HKPO of today and the orchestra that was last heard at Victoria Concert Hall in 1999.

The Esplanade Concert Hall has flattering acoustics but that was not what that made the first work of the HKPO's concert resound with a glittering sheen and glow. Hong Kong composer Fung Lam's Quintessence, composed in 2014 for the orchestra's 40th anniversary, was not one of those atonal nightmares which modern orchestras trot out on occasion and pretend to delight in.

A 10-minute single-movement concerto for orchestra, it provided a display of what each section could achieve – seperately and together - in the most virtuosic manner possible. There were extremes in dynamics, such as high-pitched strings and tingling percussion pitted against growling basses, answered with brassy interjections and chorales. Cor anglais, flute and muted trumpets all had their moments. Never static and always eventful, it kept the ears (and the performers) fully engaged through the mounting tension to its abrupt close.

That was a palate cleanser that led uncharacteristically to Mozart's Violin Concerto No.4, not a typical concert showpiece, which saw a welcome return of Sichuan violinist Ning Feng, former winner of the Paganini International Violin Competition in Genoa. The pared-down forces provided exquisitely sensitive accompaniment to Feng, who wisely chose not to flex his Paganinian prowess, but played along like a consummate chamber musician. He joined the orchestra's strings in the tuttis, and soon beautifully carved a path in his solo role, which was tasteful and fully in the spirit of the music.

His tone was sweet, but never cloying or overpowering. Only in the solo cadenzas did a sense of romanticism come into the picture, but that was never overdone. The slow movement was a delight, the restraint coming naturally rather than forced, and the Rondo finale another show of grace and courtliness, with no little prettiness in the execution. The fire-breathing aspect of Feng's musicianship came in the encore, where he obliged in Paganini's Caprice No.7 in A minor, which was simply dazzling. There seemed to be a palpable sense of relief that his natural instinct of showmanship had not gone unexploited.   

The main work was Mahler's First Symphony, just performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Robert Spano) at the same venue just less than two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I was not present and thus no basis of comparison could be made. While the SSO's show was said to be attended by a small house, it was filled to the rafters (including gallery seats sold) for the Hongkongers. They could not possibly disappoint.

Conductor Jaap van Zweden is not a big man by physical stature, and he has an Alberich-like stoop that appears ungainly at first, but in everything else he bestrode the podium like the titan of the symphony's title. The orchestra responded magnificently, with the softest hush in the symphony's opening, a rapt depiction of dawn which gradually unfurled with the nascent sun's rays beaming in. Offstage trumpets were excellent, and so it gradually led to the wayfarer's song of the movement proper. It is the attention to detail, rather than the volume of sound expended, which made this performance something touching and memorable.

The striding Ländler of the second movement was taken at a good lick, and here there was no fear of sounding rustic. All too often, the need to come across as immaculate and polished gets in the way of the heart of the music, but there was no fear of this here. Similarly, in the third movement's Funeral March, the klezmer-like episodes were more unbuttoned, preferable to the spick and span of Rattle's Berlin forces in their view of the same symphony here in 2010.

If one wanted to be swept away by the finale's fury, then consider wish granted. Two taps of the drum led directly into the tumultuous “cry of the wounded heart”, which was as passionate as one could have hoped for. The brass was on top form, not least the 8 French horns and associates who raised their bells at the final stand for a grandstanding finish. That was not all in this 20-minute long movement which had its share of reflective moments, and it were in these that Zweden brought out playing of the greatest definition. When themes for earlier movements were relived, the palpable sense of nostalgia was all pervasive, making the symphony's final triumph all the more poignant.

The standing ovation was overwhelming and spontaneous on the first curtain call, with individuals and sections of the orchestra taking their bows. And the encore, the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walküre, brilliantly delivered, was yet another subtle (or maybe not too subtle) reminder of something that Singapore has yet to accomplish – to mount its own Ring Cycle.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic is a class act, and a repeat visit with Jaap van Zweden is imperative. 

All photographs courtesy of 
Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

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