Feng Ning's Paganini
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Excessive showmanship from guest artists hampered a crowd-pleasing programme, despite the Hong Kong orchestra's committed playing.
Almost from the first note, former Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra chief Andreas Delfs seemed eager to show his worth as the Philharmonic's next music director; strategically placed cameras on the podium suggested this was an audition by the German-born conductor.
The programme started with Fandangos, a 2001 work by Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra. Based on a Spanish dance rhythm, it has an orchestral design reminiscent of Ravel and Chabrier. The rhapsodic opening on the brass and woodwind was exquisite, as were the climaxes featuring effective playing on the castanets and xylophone. A good warm-up work for both players and audience.
The orchestra was reduced by almost half for Paganini's Violin Concerto No1, allowing Chengdu-born violinist Feng Ning to take centre stage. It was an unnecessary move: the prize-winning soloist's bowing was so strong it would have stood up to a full orchestra.
His technique may be rock solid, but Ning was relentless in proving his virtuosity. It was no surprise that frenetic bowing caused him to break a string during the first movement. After a short break, he picked up where he had stopped, while softening his tone, and played the famous double harmonics passage in the second movement with bravura.
His big sound seemed to have intimidated the orchestra, which was always in the shade, even in the tutti passage in the final movement.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's 90-plus members had their moment in the second half, in Beethoven's Symphony No7. It was the work that got Edo de Waart the job as the Phil's next music director eight years ago, but under his potential successor, next July, this was a different reading. It was big-band Beethoven, the orchestra employing 16 first violinists and eight double basses - a quota more suited to one of Mahler's huge works. The interpretation, too, went for heavier timbre and quicker tempi, with all repeats observed.
Delfs' stage demeanour took some getting used to. Conducting scoreless, he was free to move on the podium and did everything from squatting to dancing in the manner of the late Leonard Bernstein. Still, the orchestra played brilliantly for him, and the playing of the first and second movements without a gap showed to good effect the shift from major to minor key.
Delfs will conduct his second audition, which includes Stravinsky's Firebird suite, on October 16 and 17.