Rachel Barton Pine and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong in sumptuous form

Pine and fellow soloist Jesse Irons dug deep for a triumphant programme that ranged from baroque splendour to postmodern minimalism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 3:19pm

The City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong under star guest conductor Andrew Sewell was in sumptuous form for last Friday’s concert, which was noted for its variety and innovation.

Similarities and disparities marked the programme, with repertoire spanning from the baroque and postmodern minimalism.

A firebrand of a composer in his youth, Henry Cowell later adopted a much more conventional outlook, as in the programme-opening Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10, which is lushly scored for strings and oboe.

Soloist Leanne Nicholls’ creamy tone blended beautifully to create delicate, melancholy dissonances, albeit swamped at times by the violas.

An ear-tickling six-note chord opened Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’amore, a long-obsolete instrument with seven gut strings, drones beneath the fingerboard adding resonance to the sound. Given soloist Rachel Barton Pine’s gentle persuasion, who could fail to love the piece?

Its primary significance, however, would be as a foil to the music of Vivaldi’s magisterial contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, whose great Concerto for Violin in A minor and Concerto for Two Violins in D minor provided the meat of the recital.

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Bach never heard his concertos played. Given the limited scope and skills of baroque period musicians, Friday’s performances would have shocked him. Seduced by beauty, the orchestra chose to ignore the fact that the Romantic era would not begin for another hundred years.

With warm acoustics, perfect ensemble and wonderful soloists (Jesse Irons joining Pine in the Two Violins), this represents the high-water mark of baroque – and in some people’s opinion, any – music.

It’s a moot point whether those concertgoers who came to hear Bach would have appreciated the modern minimalism of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. And, of course, vice versa.

Occasionally reminiscent of progressive rock bands like Talk Talk and Sigur Ros, the dreamy second movement, Silentium, required playing of utter concentration from the strings, which it unquestionably received. The prepared piano forsaken by Cowell was much in evidence, providing bell-like arpeggios and echoes of distant thunder in the bass register.

Both Pine and Irons dug deep to produce a committed performance, often producing notes at the extreme range of their instruments. With few exceptions the audience kept a rapt and absolute silence. Strangely enough, the chiming of a mobile phone did not sound totally amiss here.

As a farewell and encore from the departing soloist, we were treated to her own virtuoso composition; variations on (astonishingly!) New Zealand’s national anthem. A technical tour de force, it rightly raised the roof. One last offering, Holst’s boisterous St Paul’s Suite, provided what ultimately felt like an anticlimax to an excellent evening.

Rachel Barton Pine + CCOHK, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Reviewed: June 2