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Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes gave a rock-solid rendering in Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Energetic HK Phil impress in complex works by Ives, Bernstein and Saint-Saëns – review

From early American modernist Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark to Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for solo violin, it was a night of dynamic and focused playing from the musicians under the baton of Jaap van Zweden

Known for his rhythmically complex scores and great inventiveness in integrating “American” themes and sounds into his works, the early American modernist Charles Ives was largely ignored in his lifetime (1874-1954).

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra opened last Friday’s concert with his Central Park in the Dark for chamber orchestra and two pianos that, the composer wrote, “purports to be a picture-in-sounds of natural sounds and other happenings.”

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This “night sounds and silent darkness” were suitably eerie from the orchestra’s strings under the troupe’s music director Jaap van Zweden, albeit too audibly present when considering the triple piano and double pianissimo markings that begin and end the piece. The disruptive middle section with solo interjections was spot on though – squawking sounds from instruments aptly depicted street cars, street bands, newsboys crying “uxtries” – all adding to the cacophony of a “ragtime war.”

The 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth saw local audiences treated to his platonic love-inspired Serenade for solo violin, strings and percussion twice in two months. Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes gave a rock-solid, down-to-earth rendering, devoid of showmanship, assuming a fairly rigid stance.

Ehnes was the guest soloist in the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Organ Symphony concert. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Aesthetics aside though, Ehnes certainly proved his mettle tackling the fiendishly difficult work with bravura, admirably partnered by an agile Hong Kong Philharmonic ensemble. The precision in the whirlwind Eryximachus (Presto) from both soloist and ensemble was exceptional and Ehnes’ luscious and focused Stradivarius sound was generous in both the Agathon panegyric and the lovely Socrates duet with principal cellist Richard Bamping. After van Zweden and his musicians practically milked the wonderful jazz elements of the final Alcibiades, Ehnes returned with two solo Bach encores from the Sonatas and Partitas.

Royal Concertgebouw organist Leo van Doeselaar. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Concertgebouw organist Leo van Doeselaar was not the only one to pull out all the stops after the break – the Hong Kong Philharmonic was in particularly fine form under an animated Van Zweden, brilliantly demonstrating just why Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no.3 “Avec Orgue” (with organ) is so universally loved.

Commonly known as the Organ Symphony, the work is not by any stretch a symphony for organ. Additionally calling for a piano with two and four hands, it remains an exceptional example of orchestral fugal polyphony in its ingenious development of themes possibly derived from the plainsong melody Dies Irae. The warm string sound in the introductory Adagio and the agitated uniformity in the opening Allegro moderato (reminiscent of Schubert’s Unfinished) boded well.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s music director Jaap van Zweden conducts during the Organ Symphony concert. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

As with Ives’ work, one desired even more hush in pianissimo. The Poco adagio, signalled by the organ’s soft sustained A flat, evolved beautifully into a sublime dialogue between strings and organ.

Van Zweden coaxed energetic and focused playing from the musicians in the second Allegro moderato and the when the full C Major chord heralding the final Maestoso – Allegro sounded (played confidently here by van Doeselaar on the largest pipe organ in Southeast Asia) it was nothing short of magnificent.

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Both as soloists and sections, the brass and woodwind were at the top of their game, everyone relishing Saint-Saëns’ ingenious writing as the work reached its massive climax.

Organ Symphony with Jaap van Zweden, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.

Reviewed: June 8