This concert marked the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra achieving professional status.
Music director Jaap van Zweden was on the podium to share his insights into Berlioz's magnificent oddball, Symphonie fantastique; Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky (right) was slated to give an exemplary reading of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini; and composer in residence Fung Lam revealed his new work, Quintessence.
Berlioz's five hallucinogenic tableaus in sound start with a young artist in a drug-induced haze and end with infernal goings on deep in the forest. They need absolute precision of colour and pace to make sense of the threads running through a largely incoherent narrative. Van Zweden kept us focused in the first three movements by getting the music to flow rather than ramble and highlighting the many strands in the texture that demand attention.
The orchestra was responsive throughout, giving an impressive show of unanimity, detailed phrasing and variety of timbre. But the speed at which Van Zweden took March to the Scaffold challenged Berlioz's careful tempo marking, making it too fast to capitalise on the evil undertones, while Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath was so slick that it rather glossed over the goosebumps.
Berezovsky charged through the Rachmaninov with brute force, making it impossible to hear most of the notes individually and giving the bite-sized variations insufficient time to establish themselves. The famous melody that concludes the slower central set of variations sounded anaemic but Berezovsky, clearly proud of his matter-of-fact reading, suddenly launched into it as an encore, catching Van Zweden off guard. His production-line second encore, Debussy's The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, did nobody any favours.
Fung Lam has achieved impressive hits with previous works that are slow, pensive and mesmerising. His 10-minute work, Quintessence, contrasts passages of stasis with energetic outbursts. The harmonic language is accessible and his orchestration skills are undoubted, even though the brass writing sounded staid. It wasn't enough to captivate the audience, which, though rapt at first, turned to programme riffling midway through.