Friday 23 February 2024






Esplanade Concert Hall 

Tuesday (20 February 2024) 

This review was first published on Bachtrack on 22 February 2024 with the title "A triumphant return to Singapore by the Hong Kong Philharmonic". 

Singapore was the first stop of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s 50th anniversary concert tour of eight cities in Asia and Europe. Led by its eighth music director, Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra more than followed up on indelible impressions left at its last visit to the island-state in May 2017. 

One hallmark of the orchestra’s programming was its promotion of works by Hong Kong composers. Daniel Lo Ting-Cheung’s Asterismal Dance, specially commissioned for the anniversary season, was a compelling opener. Lasting just under seven minutes, the “scherzo fantastique” made every second count. Its slow and mysterious opening highlighted excellent woodwind passages, later erupting with a restless pulsing energy. Its idiom was tonal, chromatic and without revealing Chinese influences. Resembling Vaughan Williams at his darkest and prickliest, it was also possessed with a Bernsteinian beat, dynamics of which hinted at jazz. 

Then it was the turn of Alexandre Kantorow, 1st prizewinner of the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, to guest in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Bespectacled for this performance, he looked more like a mathematics professor about to deliver a lecture but appearances deceived. Going full pelt and trading blow for blow with the orchestra, he latched on the lapels and never let go. 

This was through and through a virtuoso outing, the pace only relenting during the first statement of the Dies Irae chant, Variation No.XII’s graceful Tempo di minuetto and the glorious transition from B flat minor to D flat major for the famous 18th Variation. The laconic yet witty ending was also perfectly voiced. Kantorow’s encore was typically anti-virtuosic: Federico Mompou’s Cancion No.6, and the audience waited with bated breath for the ensuing Danca, which never came. 

Impressive as the first half was, that was mere sideshow to Mahler’s First Symphony. By reprising its reading from seven years ago, the orchestra and van Zweden may be accused of trotting out a tired and well-worn warhorse. However, they were determined to make this account resound anew. The first movement’s evocation of dawn was rapt with stillness, the three offstage trumpets subtle yet alert to the day’s awakening. The symphony’s thematic link with the Wayfarer song Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld was well elucidated and its development convincing as to elicit premature applause at the movement’s close. There were new ears to this music indeed. 

The Scherzo was very buoyant and rambunctious, tampered by the Trio section’s more gemütlich feel. Clearly this was a performance of fine contrasts and nuanced balances. Similarly, the slow movement’s droll funeral march, a variation of Frère Jacques in the minor key, was contrasted by its unbuttoned klezmer elements, revealing the Bohemia-born composer at his earthiest. 

Yet all these had to take a backseat to the very long finale, opening with the tumultuous “cry of a wounded heart”, mustered with an immediacy that was instinctual rather than coerced. The movement’s upheavals are well-known, and there were returns of earlier themes, but stiller moments never flagged. These were deliberately built up, restraint awaiting a final payback with dividends aplenty. This was realised with the ten French horns rising to their feet for the final call to arms, a dramatic and “lump in the throat” moment if any. 

Its conclusion was greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation, which van Zweden and his charges rewarded with Dvorak’s passionate Slavonic Dance in G minor (Op.46 No.8), a furiant as a furious encore. For the orchestra’s excellence and the evening’s varied musical pleasures, one can only proclaim, “Glory to Hong Kong!”                   

Star Rating: *****

The review as seen on Bachtrack:

A triumphant return to Singapore by the Hong Kong Philharmonic | Bachtrack

Mervin Beng's review in The Straits Times:

Concert review: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates 50th anniversary with sterling show | The Straits Times

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