Coughs fail to subdue maestro Jason Lai's Hong Kong Sinfonietta farewell

Conductor Jason Lai rouses orchestra with German programme to say auf Wiedersehen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 February, 2015, 5:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 February, 2015, 5:40am

Sayaka Shoji plays Mendelssohn
Hong Kong Sinfonietta
February 6
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Maestro Jason Lai concluded his two-year tenure with the city's mid-size orchestra with an all-German programme that sounded a powerful farewell note.

The British-born Lai, associate conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta since 2013, led the 50 musicians in performing three mainstream Germanic works full of vigour and finesse to a packed audience at the City Hall.

The super slow and quiet opening to Carl Maria von Weber's Freischutz Overture tested the players, especially the soft entry of the horns, as well as members of the audience that have been suffering coughs and flu. One person coughed for at least five minutes through this 10-minute work.

The slow introduction was, by design, a strong contrast with the fast passages to come. Those in the audience used to a rich big-band sonority might have found the Sinfonietta's sound a bit thin, especially the bass strings, featuring only six cellos and four double basses.

The double basses, placed behind the centrally positioned woodwinds, instead of in their usual spot on the right, behind the cellos, made them almost inaudible. But the musical flow was natural, and the acceleration in the coda was breathtaking.

The treat of the evening was the universally loved Mendelssohn's E Minor Violin Concerto. Its ear-pleasing melodies are notoriously difficult to play, but Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji's sweet playing on the 1729 Stradivarius violin brought out the work's charm with relative ease.

Despite some nerves in the opening, the diminutive soloist quickly settled in and displayed extraordinary virtuosity in taxing passages. She played with character in the short cadenza, and the gradual transition into the arpeggios, for the orchestra to join in, was truly superb.

After the lyrical second movement, her dazzling skill was on display again, carrying the orchestra on to a rousing end. The thrill went on with two encores, a Paganini and a Sibelius - the latter arranged by the soloist who plucked the fiddle like a ukulele.

Schumann's Second Symphony in the second half was almost like an expanded Weber overture, featuring a slow opening in contrast with the later fast passages.

The work's irregular rhythm was unsettling, especially with sub-standard brass (trumpets in particular). But Lai, conducting without a baton, got the best out of the refined strings, such as the final dash in the Scherzo and the expressive third movement (with the beautiful theme on oboe and clarinet).

However, it was the vivacious finale that surely brought a smile to bid farewell to the Singapore-based conductor.