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Classical music

HKPhil’s hat tip to US-bound music director Jaap van Zweden showed just what he’ll bring to New York Philharmonic

All-American programme had a rendering of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony that made you sit up and listen, a studied performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture and Bernstein teacher Copland’s clarinet concerto

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:45pm

The message of this concert’s title was clear: “Jaap, to the New World” was a celebration of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, heading to the US to begin his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

What that means for the future of music making in both cities remains to be seen, but the weekend concert offered a fine glimpse of the past.

Van Zweden’s debut season with New York Phil premiere-heavy

The programme tipped its hat not just to the New York orchestra, but to its legendary music director Leonard Bernstein, the subject of an international season-long centennial celebration. Even amid a leadership lineage that includes Gustav Mahler, Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta, Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic tenure stands apart. As a telegenic conductor, populist educator and wildly eclectic composer, Bernstein earned unrivalled New York street cred.

That said, the concert programme also showed exactly what van Zweden has to offer. Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, which took up the second half of the evening, has been a repertory staple of the New York Philharmonic since the orchestra gave the work its premiere in 1892, and its recording under Bernstein remains as close as we have to a definitive performance. But while Bernstein’s account aims for the grand statement, van Zweden’s interpretation seemed focused more on the piece’s performance history.

HK Phil musicians shine under conductor Jaap van Zweden’s baton

Under his baton the work unfolded as if the maestro had absorbed everything he could from other conductors’ readings, distilled it, and added his own take on the score. If not exactly a performance for the ages, it was enough to make even jaded listeners sit up and hear the piece anew.

The Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland (the closest figure Bernstein had to a composition teacher) may not have the same visceral appeal, but the music draws on similarly diverse sources. Copland, with his folksy demeanour and intellectual rigour, was a Stravinsky of the prairies who topped the work with some idiomatically secure jazz riffs. Everything about the piece seemed to play to the strengths of Hong Kong Philharmonic principal clarinettist Andrew Simon.

Easier to love were Simon’s encores: two colourful arrangements from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess arranged for the occasion by the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor Gerard Salonga.

Van Zweden began the evening with Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, a piece that shows the composer at his most exuberant. Having heard the piece so often treated as a throwaway opener or an afterthought encore, it was refreshing to hear a performance like Friday’s, focused more on internal rhythms and melodic connections than merely volume and speed.

It did, however, present a quandary. Since Bernstein’s death in 1990, the New York Philharmonic has paid homage to their former maestro by performing the piece without a conductor. Van Zweden had better conduct it now while he has the chance.

Jaap, to the New World, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed: June 22