Reviews: Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 9:31am

Eternal Love
Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra 
City Hall Concert Hall Reviewed: April 5 

Rarely does one find a Chinese classical concert on the theme of love without the overplayed Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto. The four works performed at last weekend's Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra concert came from a list of some 2,000 works it commissioned and premiered.

The first, Overture to Romance of the Eastern Sea, was composed in 1982 and premiered by then music director Ng Tai-kong. Under the baton of resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat, the orchestra carried a much thicker timbre and stronger attack in tutti passages than the rendition by scrupulous artistic chief Yan Huichang. This was most evident in the opening orchestral fanfare setting the scene for the love story between the Dragon Princess by the sea and a woodcutter mortal. While the erhu theme was enchanting, the plucked string section lacked unison. The bass suona played a lovely theme, beautifully accompanied by the huqin on soft tremolo.

Lovers in Turbulent Times is an erhu concerto that premiered in 1987 with its composer, He Zhanhao, conducting. It tells a tragic story of two lovers from families similar to those of Romeo and Juliet. Soloist Zhang Chongxue, the orchestra's acting erhu principal, navigated through its roller coaster-like emotions on the two-string fiddle. Her lyricism was at its best in the slow movement in a duet first with the guzheng and then the pipa.

In Legend of the White Snake, the orchestra's dizi principal Sun Yongzhi (left) showed his virtuosity in all four movements of the story about the forbidden love between mortal and immortal. Sun's solid technique awed the audience from the first notes, and he remained at ease and above the orchestra as the story unfolded. Rock-solid technique aside, there were passages, such as the snake fairy's plea for the return of her husband, that could have used some articulation. But the dizi's strong presence in the tutti passage, depicting the fight between the supernaturals, showed the lady at her toughest.

The concert concluded with The Return of the Condor Heroes, which local veteran composer Chen Neng-chi wrote as a tribute to the story's author, Louis Cha Leung-yung. The erhu-zhonghu duet was memorable. The triumphant march in the finale that signified a reunion after tribulations was balanced by a charming encore, Send Me a Rose.

Oliver Chou


Hong Kong Philharmonic 
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall 
Reviewed: April 6 

Hong Kong Philharmonic's innovative 9pm concert series kicked off last weekend with a misnomer. Baroque@9PM featured an hour of a medley of 11 works. But only three were originally by Johann Sebastian Bach. There was no Vivaldi, Handel or Gluck, all baroque composers in their own right.

More distressing was the mix of works and the way they were presented.

The second work was a case in point. After a rather banal performance of Stokowski's orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, American conductor Julian Wachner left the stage. With the full orchestra sitting idle, a hesitant round of applause greeted the pianist Piao Xingji, who took a bow at the piano next to the backstage door. There he played Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue No 2, then took a bow and left for the night. The whole thing lasted no longer than three minutes.

Such a hit-and-run approach may be fine for a school variety show, or fundraising gala, but it's inappropriate for a paid-up performance by a flagship orchestra. While performing in tees and sneakers might seem relaxed, playing Bach's famous Air on the G String under red spotlights was simply bizarre.

The show went on to include a pop song, Blackbird, by The Beatles, sung through a microphone by young vocalist Jennifer Palor, with Francis Wan on the guitar, also amplified. The artificial sound did not do justice to the guitarist's sober performance of Bach's Bourree in E Minor, which was said to have inspired the Beatles' song.

These Broken Wings by David Lang related to Blackbird in its lyrics, but is hardly baroque or Bach. The six-member band, led by concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich, seemed uninspired.

Other works claiming a Bach inspiration included Arvo Pärt's Collage über Bach and Percy Grainger's Blithe Bells, each reflecting the sonority of their times and musical idioms. The oboe with two solo violins was memorable, but the absence of a harpsichord required in the original scores rendered the piece incomplete.

Placing cellist Wang Jian (left) at the end of the programme was a strategy to make people stay to the end. Earlier, he played Bach's Sarabande from Suite No 5 with the same focus as in the 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart. His virtuosity in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations makes one almost willing to overlook that it has its origin in Mozart, not baroque.

Oliver Chou