Review: Richard Galliano and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

French virtuoso accordion/bandoneon player hit all the right notes in a programme that was full of energy in conductor Jean Thorel’s last concert as music director

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:53pm

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong is not afraid to use unexpected instruments as soloists – from glass harmonica to mandolin and tuba – so the accordion and bandoneon fit right in for this concert with Richard Galliano.

The soloist swept away the audience with a Piazzolla concerto and his own equally colourful composition, La Valse à Margaux.

Galliano also was the soloist in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and the accordion was superb at the quick, darting violin figures as well as haunting slow movements.

The accordion’s sound evoked a hovering shadow of French café music, but the players did full justice to the spirit of Vivaldi.

The string quartet and bass led by violinist Amelia Chan made a bright, tight backup band with crackling energy. They eased phrases in and out and flattened their vibrato to uncannily match the sound of the accordion.

Hong Kong welcomes return of accordionist Richard Galliano

Watching Galliano’s virtuoso fingerwork on the black-and-white buttons was mesmerising, and with his sensitive use of the breath of the bellows he brought the mechanical box to life like a magic puppet.

The Bachianas Brasileiras No 9 for string orchestra by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos did not bring out the best of the ensemble.

It started promisingly with a rich viola section and viola solo, but later the lines sounded awkward, with thin strings and iffy intonation. The end rose to a convincing climax with the layering of the prelude and fugue ideas together but overall it was a wilted flower, weaker in inspiration than the indelible aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 for soprano and cellos.

Piazzolla’s Concerto for Bandoneon, Aconcagua, began with splashy harp and percussion, an up-swoop in the bass, and continued in rugged noir style.

Conductor Jean Thorel gave it a strong dance pull. One of the many students of the Nadia Boulanger, Astor Piazzolla’s music is enjoying a resurgence, and it’s clear that his inspiration transcended the world of tango.

His gift was to find endless variety in these traditional dances, in colour, rhythm and flavour. Each of the three main sections of the piece was a different world, from dreamy and introspective to James Bond soundtrack. The bandoneon came into its glory here, and its quirks – sudden swells, attacks and cut-offs – made perfect sense.

Galliano’s own composition, La Valse à Margaux, was a gem, similarly sophisticated and complex, with infectious dance rhythms and inventive orchestration.

In several encores Galliano took the special bandoneon techniques to another dimension. He shook the whole instrument to make a tremolo sound, played riffs that went higher and higher until they disappeared into space, and went seamlessly from Bach-like organ to jazz.

This was Thorel’s last concert as music director after finishing his eight-year contract with the City Chamber Orchestra.

He was the orchestra’s first chief conductor and he put his stamp on it with a coherent style and voice.

When asked for highlights of their time together, he said, “We had many highlights, to be frank – each concert is a challenge for me. I enjoyed so much working with Leanne [Nichols, founder and principal oboist] and the musicians. In the future I would be totally glad to come any time, immediately – I will jump in.”

Next season, the ensemble will be searching for a new music director, and Thorel will be conducting in Denmark and Paris with groups including the contemporary chamber orchestra Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagenand the Polytone Ensemble Instrumental.

Richard Galliano and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: June 10