HKPhil plays cultural ambassador on debut tour to Australia marking handover anniversary
Orchestra to give concerts in Melbourne and at Sydney Opera House, and return to Seoul, Singapore and Osaka on tour featuring work by Hong Kong composer Lam Fung and Chinese violin soloist Ning Feng
When the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra hits the road this weekend, the 43-year-old troupe will not only be returning to cities it hasn’t been to for years – Seoul (14 years), Singapore (18 years) and Osaka (almost 30 years) – but also making its debut in Australia, performing at the Melbourne Arts Centre and the Sydney Opera House.
The fact the orchestra hasn’t toured much outside Greater China may come as a surprise to some, but taking the orchestra outside Hong Kong is a huge undertaking, involving moving more than 100 musicians, about a dozen support staff and 2.8 tonnes of air freight that need transporting from city to city. For the first decade or so of this century, apart from occasional appearances in China, the HKPhil largely opted to stay at home.
However, following well received performances in Taiwan in 2013 and a major tour of China the following year, music director Jaap van Zweden took the HKPhil to Europe in 2015, playing in seven cities, including Vienna – where it performed at the Musikverein, celebrated home of the Vienna Philharmonic. The reception the orchestra received on the continent was encouraging.
“Our tour to Europe was a huge success and we got very good reviews throughout the European cities,” says the HKPhil’s principal horn, Lin Jiang. “When Jaap first came here he talked about pushing the orchestra so it becomes internationally acclaimed, and I think we’re achieving exactly that through recording and touring much more.”
The Hong Kong government, which funds the orchestra, couldn’t have agreed more, and especially wanted the HKPhil to go to Australia, where it has never previously played.
The upcoming tour was set up at the behest of the government to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China, the orchestra’s chief executive, Michael MacLeod, says. “And they want us to be cultural ambassadors, which of course we are delighted to do.”
In line with that intention, he says, it was decided that each concert should include a work by a Hong Kong composer to represent the city, a major symphony to represent the Western symphonic tradition that is the orchestra’s raison d’être, and a violin concerto featuring a soloist from China to symbolise reunification.
Lam Fung was chosen as the local composer, and all the concerts will open with Quintessence, a piece he composed for the HKPhil’s 40th anniversary in 2014.
Chengdu-born soloist Ning Feng will play Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in a farewell concert in Hong Kong, and in Seoul and Osaka, and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in Singapore, Melbourne and Sydney. Brahms Symphony No. 1 will be played at the first three concerts and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at the rest.
“Mahler’s music is full of emotion and his Symphony No. 1 is ideal for touring, being relatively short and extremely accessible,” says van Zweden. “You can’t beat the majesty of Brahms’ first symphony with its glorious final movement. Ning Feng is a great violinist and in his hands, the Bartók and Mozart violin concertos will sparkle.”
For Lam, who will be present for all the concerts, the tour is something of a milestone, in that Quintessence will receive its premiere in all the cities other than Hong Kong.
“It’s pretty rare for a contemporary orchestral work to receive so many performances in such a short time,” he says. “Thanks to Jaap van Zweden, this piece has been brought on tour with the HK Phil for three different tours, in Europe in 2015, China in 2016 and this upcoming tour in 2017, totalling 15 performances. It’s terribly exciting to hear your music being performed in all these different amazing, prestigious concert halls around the world.”
Clearly the orchestra for which Quintessence was written enjoys playing it.
“It’s a very solid piece,” says Jiang. “It has a lot of colour and a lot of relationship to Asia. There are a lot of tonalities that remind you of the pentatonic scale, and some exciting moments. We’ve toured it before and got a very good reception for it.”
Quintessence was the first commission under The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation’s composer-in-residence programme with the HKPhil supporting the work of Chinese composers.
“It took me around three to four months to compose Quintessence. Like most of my compositions, it grew organically. I consider the occasion of the premiere. I consider the performers of the premiere. These add up,” Lam explains.
Some of the inspiration for the 10-minute piece came from Buddhist ideas, and the composer says he chose the Chinese title “Yun” because it evokes Buddhist thinking on the themes of evolution and impermanence.
“The Chinese title came first in this case. It refers to a substance that exists in all beings, all living things, as described in Buddhism,” says Lam. “This refers directly to how I put together the composition, as it contains many contrasting sections, which are bound together with the use of a simple musical motif.”
Knowing Quintessence was to be premiered in Hong Kong at the Phil’s 40th anniversary gala concert, Lam knew he wanted the piece to have a “positive and celebratory edge”. That also makes it appropriate for the anniversary theme of the concerts on this tour.
The music has also been slightly modified for the orchestra’s touring requirements.
“The piece was revised once after the premiere, before it went on its first tour,” says Lam.
“I made it very slightly more compact, and readjusted the percussion orchestration to make it easier for the orchestra to tour the piece logistically.”
MacLeod and van Zweden – who next year takes over as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but will continue concurrently in his position with the HKPhil until at least 2022 – both see international touring and recording as critical to the orchestra’s future.
The last six years have seen the orchestra record CDs of the music of Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, conducted by the composers; a “Classics for Kids” programme conducted by Perry So; and most importantly, perhaps, embark on performing and recording – live – the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which no orchestra has ever played in its entirety in Hong Kong.
Proceeding at a rate of one opera per year, the HKPhil has so far performed and recorded Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried, with Götterdammerung to be staged in the next season.
“Jaap is a taskmaster,” says Jiang, who was born in Shanghai and grew up in Australia. “I don’t know another conductor who works as hard as Jaap does with the orchestra. It’s not easy, but he does get phenomenal results, as the Hong Kong public has been noticing.
“We’ve been getting better reviews, the audience numbers are increasing, and I feel people are responding very well to what Jaap is doing. We work very hard, but the rewards are there. He’s very clear and precise about what he wants. There’s so much detail in his head.”
He adds that the recording of Die Walküre was outstanding: “What Jaap is doing is pushing this orchestra to another level, and it’s phenomenal for us.”
There will be more international touring to come, according to MacLeod. In 2020 the orchestra will tour the United States and Canada.
“Conceptually we like the idea of doing a major tour roughly every two years. It seems a good balance,” he says.
“If you are playing in famous venues like the Sydney Opera House or the Musikverein, audiences there are used to hearing the great orchestras of the world, and when you show up you know that you are going to be compared to them, so you need to raise the bar and play at the highest level.”
Jaap & Ning Feng, April 14, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Tickets: HK$280-HK$680, inquiries: 2721 2332