A rousing night of music and merriment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2007, 12:00am


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The Hong Kong Philharmonic pulls out all the stops to celebrate a year to remember with an evening of classical numbers and fireworks

Happy Valley racecourse was buzzing with activity last Friday. The crowd of 15,000 did not go there to place bets, but to enjoy the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Handel in a night of symphony.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) could not have arranged a better evening. Everyone revelled in the stunning atmosphere of the racetrack and superb music.

This was the second time the Swire Symphony under the Stars has taken place, making the annual free outdoor concert Hong Kong's largest. Last year, the orchestra performed at Hung Hom Ferry Pier. The concert, sponsored by Swire, marked the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong SAR.

Hong Kong's music lovers turned out in force, snapping up the free tickets in less than two days. There were many teenagers and young adults alongside older listeners and toddlers who all enjoyed the event.

The concert ran like clockwork. Designated seating areas and aisles were clearly marked to enable attendees to move freely from one section to another.

The organisers had also thoughtfully provided floor mats for people to sit on the ground.

The programme opened with conductor laureate David Atherton, leading the 80-member orchestra in a powerful performance of Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. As one of the most recognisable scores of 20th-century American classical music, the HKPO conjured up earthy sounds reminiscent of the American Midwest. Strong flourishes from the brass section combined with the thumping of the timpani and banging from the gongs made this piece an appropriate start to the event.

Throughout the performance Atherton, the former music director of the HKPO and co-founder of the London Sinfonietta, conducted with energy and emotion. Joining the orchestra was 19-year-old Zuo Zhang from Shenzhen, who won first prize in the American Gina Bachauer International Young Artists Piano Competition and first prize at the International Piano Concerto Competition in China last year.

Next, Tchaikovsky's ever-charming ballet score, excerpts from The Nutcracker, was a lively piece with brisk tempo and crisp notes from the flautist. This winter-time ballet favourite created a festive atmosphere with Christmas only a few weeks away.

Zuo made her appearance in a white flowing floor-length gown and played Rachmaninov's romantic classic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with precision and clarity.

The sound system for the outdoor event was exceptional and all instruments could be heard distinctly. Zuo's performance was splashed across four big screens as she showed her mastery of the keys.

HKPO concert master John Harding said: 'The sound engineers did a very good job. It's quite difficult to get a sound [outside] as condensed and focused. When you play outside, it's usually a big compromise.'

After intermission, Rossini's William Tell overture began slowly and romantically with solos on clarinet and flute. The tension built into a storm featuring the full orchestra, and the high-energy finale was the ever-popular theme tune to The Lone Ranger. The excitement of the cavalry charge was highlighted with forceful trumpets and was further enhanced by the racecourse setting.

The only Chinese composition on the programme was Hua Yanjun's meditative Moon Reflection in the Er Quan. Conductor Atherton, dressed in a black Chinese robe, elegantly led the orchestra through sweeping movements that were reminiscent of an epic love story.

Handel's powerful Royal Fireworks Music, which was composed for a fireworks display at London's Green Park in 1749, finished off the night and the fireworks were succinctly synchronised and greeted with roars of applause.

People brought food to eat throughout the performance, danced to the rhythms and 'air-conducted' with imaginary batons.

At the end of the concert Philip Chen Nan-lok, executive director of Swire Pacific, said: 'We are happy to be part of this outdoor concert, bringing spectacular symphonic music to a large audience. The concert tonight takes on a special meaning as it is our gift to the people of Hong Kong to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the HKSAR. It is gratifying to see that the concert has been so well received. I would like to congratulate the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on an extremely successful performance.'

Edward Ho Sing-tin, chairman of the board of governors of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society, said: 'We at the Hong Kong Philharmonic are dedicated to bringing fine music to audiences inside and outside of concert halls. I am therefore most thrilled to see that our audience tonight has thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I would like to thank everyone who has given their generous support to this event, especially Swire, our title sponsor and the orchestra's principal patron.'

One audience member remarked: 'I was at last year's Symphony Under The Stars ... and I brought my friends along this year. This is something that people can look forward to every year.'

Classical music fans can look forward to another great night next year.