Performance hits the wrong note in subtlety
Hong Kong Sinfonietta
City Hall Concert Hall
The Hong Kong Sinfonietta's line-up this season features five Mozart piano concertos (Nos 20 to 24) and all four Brahms symphonies, forming a recurrent strain with the promise of something special to come.
Last year the orchestra fielded an underwhelming attempt at Brahms' Symphony No 1 under the ineffective direction of the German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
Saturday's concert was an opportunity to assuage that memory and persuade the audience the mid-size orchestra really is up to Brahms' larger canvas of thought, and the soloists know how to get behind those pretty tunes and into Mozart's soul.
The latter quality was elusive in Yeol Eum Son's performance of the Piano Concerto No 21: notes were rattled off with robotic accuracy, but little care for subtlety of line and tone. It isn't necessary to shout to make a point in this music, but one felt sympathy for her having to accommodate an orchestral accompaniment that was unbalanced both within itself and against the soloist.
The conductor was Jason Lai, who is now principal conductor of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. His reading of Brahms' Symphony No 4 should be filed away for a long time. Devoid of architectural grasp and emotional sway, Brahms' unfolding ideas were crudely bolted together, deprived of breathing space and compromised the contrast in character between movements.
The dynamic high points were forced, unpleasant on the ear and intellectually unjustified when let completely off the leash. The violins put their all into these moments, but to lopsided effect with the bass line providing anaemic support. Better to exploit the soft end of the spectrum and accord with the modest string resources Brahms had at his disposal.
Arvo Part's Fratres was the short curtain-raiser. It comes in many versions; we heard the one for strings and percussion. With nine ascetic statements of a short, tonally based passage coloured only by a gradual change in dynamics, it conveys a spiritually reflective stasis that doesn't readily click with the idea of a Saturday night out.