Review: Emperor and New World

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 9:38am

Emperor and New World
Hong Kong Philharmonic Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Reviewed: September 6

The Hong Kong Philharmonic opened its 40th anniversary season on Friday with music director Jaap van Zweden on the podium and newly appointed Jing Wang in the concertmaster's chair. The orchestra's first professional performance was on January 11, 1974. The programmes for the two occasions were remarkably similar - both featured an overture, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5 and a symphony dating from almost the same year.

Soloist in the Beethoven concerto was Jean-Yves Thibaudet who has a deservedly fine reputation and an extensive discography which, interestingly, features nothing by Beethoven. He probably wishes he could draw a veil over his performance of the last movement with its potholes full of inaccuracies, which is a pity since the rest of his account held the ear.

His fluffs in the first movement were a small price to pay for the sense of spontaneity and urgency in a performance of symphonic proportions, with Thibaudet and the orchestra working hand-in-glove in terms of mood, blend and precision.

The piano's opening cadenza made an arresting maelstrom of what often sounds like warm-up finger work, while Van Zweden's subsequent attention to detail in the articulation of every phrase fully realised the constantly changing character of the music. The forward momentum he maintained made the monumental movement fly by.

That sense of unhindered flow was largely missing from Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No 9, From the New World, which is built on plainly heartfelt rather than intellectually chiselled music.

Rather than letting the notes roll off the page in an artless steam to achieve the big picture, many sections felt earth-bound instead of forward-looking; the alternating swagger and lilt in the third movement, for example, sounded four-square. Verging on noisy rather than emotionally intense, many loud passages seemed out of place and diminished the effectiveness of strategic climaxes.

Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng's Shanghai Overture opened the programme. Written in 2007, it aims to fuse traditional Chinese music with Western neoclassicism, in which clarity and simplicity rule supreme. The Eastern hallmarks of pentatonic folk tunes and undemonstrative statements sat happily with the lucid short block of interweaving melody lines.

Sam Olluver