Evocative viola steals the show

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 October, 1995, 12:00am

THE music was almost secondary for the first concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic since its return from holiday. Virtually every piece was a tuneful simulation of either painting or poetry. Considering the Hong Kong Philharmonic had just come back from vacation, they played surprisingly well. Perhaps too well. For conductor Diego Masson had groomed them to play elegantly; the fountains of Respighi's Rome burst out nicely, Berlioz' Harold was an elegant observer, and Rossini's overture had all the right Rossinian climaxes.

What was lacking, perhaps, was a modicum of spirit, of the unexpected.

One could marvel at the woodwind playing (really exceptional) or feel elated at the ensemble tuttis in the Berlioz. But as a whole, it was pleasing entertainment without the indispensable wonder.

The Rossini Italian in Algiers overture had some beautiful oboe tunes and the crescendos in the right places. Respighi's Fountains of Rome were more than picture postcards, but musical holograms of time and space.

But the wonder of the concert was Israeli-Canadian violist Rivka Golani, in two monuments for her instrument.

First, the Paganini Grand Sonata for Viola, new to this writer. The theme and variations have the traditional virtuosic challenges, essayed with some ease. But Golani took great fun in the work, playing the Hungarian-style introduction with exaggerated Gypsy movements.

It is a flagrant showoff piece, but Golani has all the equipment to make it live.

More important was the poetry of Berlioz' Harold in Italy. Playing viola solo could be a thankless chore for a less brilliant musician. As Paganini apologised to the composer, 'It has too many rests for a soloist'.

True enough, this Harold in Italy didn't attempt to make a concerto out of the work. Rather, her light, almost incidental playing enabled one to hear the piece for what it is: an orchestral landscape, 'featuring' a viola soloist.

Yet what a solo it was. Towards the end of the second movement, when the viola plays arpeggios without vibrato against the soft cellos and basses, it breathed the mystic. Even when it was almost silent in the final Orgy of the Brigands (where Berlioz described the brasses as 'vomiting'), the short, almost shy entrance of the viola at the end was like a poetic benison to the whole affair. Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Rivka Golani, viola; Diego Masson, conductor; Cultural Centre Concert Hall, October 21