Review: HK Phil 40th Anniversary Heritage Concert

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm

HK City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: January 10

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was on the cusp of its 40th birthday last Friday: January 11, 1974, marked its inaugural performance as a professional ensemble.

Apart from the recent decision to lose the "orchestra" bit and become the HK Phil, one wonders what else has changed since that occasion.

Although I wasn't around taking notes back then (but the current principal of the second violins was), I'd say quality of sound must be the most significant development.

Today's orchestra boasts an impressive body of players: the strings' mature sound is spearheaded by outstanding principal players; similarly the wind and brass sections, which bear the constant pressure of exposed solos and rarely disappoint; while the percussion department is skilfully nuanced.

This anniversary concert programme comprised Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, plus Beethoven's Egmont overture and his Third Piano Concerto (in 1974 it was the Fifth), fronted by a male conductor (David Atherton) and a female soloist (Chen Sa, pictured left).

The criticisms of Tchaikovsky's symphonic writing levelled during his day (such as surface vulgarity and repetitious padding) are still aired today, but Atherton and the orchestra showed how to turn those weaknesses into a superb performance.

Chen's tone in the Beethoven concerto was well judged; she played with clarity, technical precision and an expressivity that integrated well with the orchestra.

But the piece has more to offer through finer details in articulation and shading. Her first movement cadenza was understated, while the slow movement's sense of mystery remained unexplored and the finale's underlying skittishness was largely ignored.

Sam Olluver