Classical music

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma spins musical magic in Hong Kong Philharmonic opener

Classical musician joins forces with Wu Tong, player of Chinese instrument the sheng, in a contemplative work played with control and sensitivity. Orchestra sounded radiant, mature and confident playing Bizet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 12:40pm

Yo-Yo Ma is a bit like a US president after his final term – he has done it all, has nothing left to prove, and can now devote himself to whatever he likes.

The cellist has been stitching the globe together with music – founding the Silk Road Ensemble and collaborating with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, American bluegrass musicians and tango musicians. It was rewarding to hear him come full circle to Chinese-inspired music, as he did in the lovely concerto for cello and sheng, Duo, by Zhao Lin.

The programme for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening concert of the 2016-17 season was not about showing off Ma’s virtuosity, but about producing musical magic in slow, contemplative pieces.

Yo-Yo Ma on the joys of opening the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s new season

Inspired by the Chinese epic Journey to the West, Duo was composed for sheng player Wu Tong and Ma. It is a partnership of two lyrical instruments with liquid, expressive sounds, and Wu was a match for Ma in control and sensitivity.

The sheng, a bamboo mouth organ, is considered the ancestor of the accordion and the harmonica, and can sound like anything from a flute to a muted jazz trumpet.

Composer Zhao has found a way to blend Western and Chinese music organically. Melodically, Duo has a Chinese flavour and a clean, transparent texture, but it makes idiomatic use of Western harmony and orchestration.

The section at the heart of the piece starts with a steady background of bell-like harp notes. Sustained strings and actual bells blend to create a timeless, floating texture. Soft, vaporous sheng chords are layered over that while on Ma’s cello gentle phrases rise and fall, at times foaming up into flurries and outbursts. It is the kind of modernism that comes from making a new sound from two traditions rather than self-consciously breaking with the past.

Wu Tong modernised Chinese instrument the sheng; now he’s turning clock back

Duo is also modern in the sense that the musical ideas keep evolving and spinning. It would be even more powerful if Zhao had repeated the ideas enough to make them stick in the listener’s mind, rather than having them constantly change shape and slip away. Still, the sensation of plunging into a deep pool of water was delicious.

Opening the concert was Bizet’s Symphony in C. There was a whiff of the opera stage in this piece despite its classical form.

Principal guest conductor Yu Long’s gestures were square and no-nonsense, but the sounds he brought forth from the orchestra were delightfully springy, songful and swaying. The discipline instilled by music director Jaap van Zweden over the years has paid off and the orchestra sounded radiant, mature and confident. It was only in the final, fast-paced Allegro Vivace movement that the highest violin passages showed a little fuzziness.

High points of the Bizet were Michael Wilson’s oboe solo, with echoes of the Habanera from Carmen, and a thrillingly sustained arc of melody from the violin section, both in the slow movement. In the last movement, the light-footed, irresistible theme suggested dancers with ostrich feather headdresses.

With the first notes of Dvorak’s Silent Woods, Ma’s cello lit up the concert hall after the intermission.

It was a startlingly human voice, quiet but seemingly close, like an intimate whisper.

The piece is just five minutes long, so it was over almost before it started and melted away like a wisp of cotton candy. The orchestra threatened to spoil the enchanted mood by drowning out the soloist at times, but by the end the proper balance and atmosphere had been restored.