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Lio Kuokman conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic in a programme of works by Respighi and the orchestra’s own Ozno. Photo: Ka Lam/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Review | Hong Kong Philharmonic thrill with vibrant Respighi and a pyrotechnic piccolo premiere

  • Conductor Lio Kuokman drew vibrant, spontaneous renditions of Italian composer Respighi’s journeys through Rome from the Hong Kong Philharmonic
  • Linda Stuckey showed her command of the piccolo in the world premiere of a concerto by Ozno – her husband and the Phil’s principal timpanist James Boznos

By omitting Roman Festivals, the final part of Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s so-called “Roman Trilogy”, could the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s “Roman Holiday” concert on June 18 be construed as a journey cut short? Perhaps.

But it’s doubtful anyone felt short-changed after the orchestra’s larger-than-life renditions of the better-known Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome under the baton of conductor Lio Kuokman and a dazzling display of piccolo pyrotechnics by Linda Stuckey in a fascinating new concerto.

Respighi’s colourful dawn-to-dusk depiction of four exquisitely sculpted fountains of Rome began the programme. The high strings lacked clarity initially, but the scene of pastoral serenity in Valle Giulia the composer paints featured some fine woodwind playing, including lovely oboe and flute solos by principals Michael Wilson and Megan Sterling.

The orchestra’s take on mid-morning at the Triton Fountain pulsated with joviality. The horns impressed in their portrayal of the Tritons blowing on conch shells. Stirring brass fanfares and infectious swirling dances lent Respighi’s impression of midday at the Trevi Fountain a triumphal character.

Lio Kuokman drew some intense and heartfelt playing from the Hong Kong Philharmonic in its Roman Holiday programme. Photo: Ka Lam/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

When Lio gracefully eased proceedings into sunset mode on the terrace of Villa Medici, the harps, celeste and piano sparkled and shimmered to great effect. A set of quietly tolling bells from the mid-left balcony area signalled the evening prayer and a new, wonderfully melancholic mood, the delicate strains of the strings fading into complete restfulness and the silence of the night.

Then, having twice been postponed with the cancellation of concerts because of coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, it was third time lucky for the world premiere of the Piccolo Concerto by Ozno – the name under which the Philharmonic’s principal timpanist, James Boznos, releases his compositions. It was performed by Stuckey, his Australian wife and a flautist and piccolo player with the orchestra.

Linda Stuckey performs the solo part in the world premiere of the Piccolo Concerto by Ozno, a member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Lio Kuokman conducts the orchestra. Photo: Ka Lam/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

As explained in the composer’s programme note, the work is in six sections resembling preludes, their changing moods akin to “flicking through different channels on a TV”.

As both a vehicle for showcasing the range of the piccolo’s sound and Stuckey’s command of the instrument, the concerto hit the mark.

In the section called Turing Test, for example, Stuckey’s highly controlled tonguing – imitated with great finesse by the second violins – depicted vividly the purring and buzzing of a computer.

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Some of the “occasional gossip” depicted in Zoom was realised by the chatter of keys on brass instruments. Eerie effects from the piano and sustained notes on the piccolo that hovered above the orchestra marked the spooky burial ceremony depicted in Obsequies.

Lio maintained a tight rein on the orchestra in Trip the Light Fantastic, highly rhythmical with nimble dance patterns, and the brilliant clarity of Stuckey’s playing was to the fore in the final section, Antonio’s 16ths, a nod to the semiquaver arpeggio figures found in Vivaldi’s C major concerto, which in the 18th century would probably have been performed on a high-pitched recorder or flautino.

Given the piccolo’s limited solo repertoire, Ozno’s concerto is a worthy and welcome addition.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic performed Respighi’s Pines of Rome with spontaneity and vibrant energy. Photo: Ka Lam/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

The finest and most spontaneous orchestral playing of the evening came in Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the second part of his Roman trilogy. An abundance of vibrant energy and some intense and heartfelt playing did full justice to the Italian composer’s vision of bygone glories.

Respighi’s depiction of children playing the Italian equivalent of Ring a Ring o’ Roses amid the pines of the Villa Borghese was rendered in glorious colours. Muted trumpets perfectly embodied the miniature soldiers and their battles and the celeste and piano added layers of sparkling texture; the crescendo to a frenetic cacophony of sound was fantastic.

Not unlike the abrupt mood changes in Ozno’s concerto, the hushed solemnity of Catacombs suddenly gave way to fine playing on horns and trombones representing chanting priests presenting their hymns, with sensitive playing by an offstage trumpet in the second of them.

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John Schertle’s warm clarinet solo in Janiculum was in keeping with the romantic mood of the composer’s depiction of moonlight on the pines, but the recorded birdsong used at the end of movement was too loud, overwhelming and detracting from the delicate textures of the orchestra’s playing.

As the finale’s march along the pine-tree-lined Appian Way took shape, Kwan Sheung-fung’s lovely cor anglais solo was captivating.

Lio succeeded in building the concluding crescendo like a brilliant sunrise. The organ depicted the ground beginning to tremble, the full artillery of brass instruments blazed in unity both onstage and in ensemble formation on the right lower balcony, and the full might of the orchestra brought the work to a powerful and triumphant conclusion.

It was extremely loud, but it was also extremely well done.

“Roman Holiday”, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Reviewed June 18. Also July 2, 8pm.