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Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in its Beethoven-themed opening concert of the 2021/22 season at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Review | Hong Kong Philharmonic’s uplifting Beethoven 7th Symphony under Jaap van Zweden’s baton gets 2021/22 season under way

  • Orchestra marks the return to the rostrum of its music director with a sublime performance from concertmaster Jing Wang in Beethoven’s violin concerto
  • A new commission, Old Bei, about China and Beethoven, lacks balance – and initially so did the orchestra in composer’s 7th symphony, before a rousing finale
Dirk Luiten
Live concerts last year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. And so the Hong Kong Philharmonic continues to acknowledge the German composer’s legacy, albeit belatedly – opening its 2012/22 season with a Beethoven programme that also saw music director Jaap van Zweden’s long-awaited return to the rostrum.

The concert began with Old Bei (an affectionate name for Beethoven in China), a new commission by composer Raymond Yiu which quotes familiar passages by Beethoven verbatim, alongside materials representative of a range of musical styles from different ages, including segments of the Chinese National anthem and the left-wing anthem Internationale.

It began promisingly with a mesmerising statement from flautist Megan Sterling that bloomed into an interplay with the other woodwinds. The first of the direct quotes (from the Fifth Symphony) popped up in comical fashion, but subsequent reproductions of Beethoven became lengthier and more frequent; the result was a work that felt like a patchwork of ideas and somewhat piecemeal.

The work is premised on the complex relationship between China and Beethoven, but the symbolism is not convincingly realised. Perhaps a more contemplative reinvention of the German materials rather than direct quotation could have better exposed that relationship.

Nevertheless, the canvas of emotions – from the grand to the playful – was executed well and ushered us towards more serious fare.

The first movement of Beethoven’s only violin concerto has a meandering structure, and to make sense of it the soloist needs to communicate a functional understanding and illuminate broader connections.

Concertmaster Jing Wang was the soloist in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Jaap van Zweden. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Hong Kong Phil concertmaster Jing Wang excelled at both, bringing something tender to his polished opening, and later, a subdued interaction with the woodwinds that demonstrated his comprehension of the passage’s importance. Wang is one of those rare artists with the ability to elevate the simple to the sublime, make the complex comprehensible and mould the mundane into something meaningful.

The second movement’s tempo was sedate, but did allow for a full appreciation of the bassoon’s upper register in a memorable solo. In comparison the finale was suitably paced and the main theme’s fluctuating tempos well integrated into the performance. Structurally it is much simpler than the first movement, and Wang brought forth its playful energy; an impassioned cadenza added to the profundity of the material.

The evening ended with the composer’s grand Symphony No. 7, familiar territory for van Zweden, whose precise direction produced a performance of wide emotional and dynamic range.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in its season-opening concert in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

In the first movement, it is important to maintain the crispness of the many lengthened notes, and this was largely achieved. The string section tended to drown out the woodwinds, however.

The second movement was taken at a generous pace and sounded a little bass-heavy at the opening, but this was soon forgotten with the introduction of the velvety viola countermelody.

There seemed to be some disagreement over the articulation of the symphony’s machine-like, motoric rhythm, but by the time the orchestra reached the third movement Scherzo the players were united and the orchestra gave it a sufficiently cheeky rendition.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and musical director Jaap van Zweden receive the applause of the audience at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall during its season-opening concert. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

It is customary to take the following Trio section somewhat slower, to offer contrast and give the Scherzo’s return more impact, but van Zweden chose to maintain the same pace, thus missing an opportunity for the trumpets to shine in their fanfare moment and emphasise the contrast between the two sections.

The finale was taken at a blistering pace that seemed to be more for show than for musical reasons. The orchestra were up to the task, but some of the musical details were lost in its frenetic delivery. The final part of the movement was effective, however, and provided an uplifting entrée to the new season.

Season Opening: Jaap Beethoven 7, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed September 3