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Classical music

Zhang Xian's Roman Festivals: HK Philharmonic Orchestra

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 11:37am

Zhang Xian's Roman Festivals

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Reviewed: April 17

This was a concert that almost delivered on its promise. Conductor Zhang Xian gave a high-energy, stirring performance, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was in fine shape after its European tour, and a new piece by composer Chen Qigang was engaging and original. Still, I was not quite satisfied.

Ottorino Respighi's tone poem Roman Festivals uses massive forces including organ, extra brass, piano and mandolin. The grim mood of the ancient Roman arena was conveyed well.

The brass players were in top form all night, including the three-trumpet fanfare and a bold horn call. The mandolin was delightful and concertmaster Jing Wang's solo was elegant and intense.

But fine details were blurred at times, dulling the overall impact. I also missed the sense of vast space that the composer intended. Phrase endings were wonderful but beginnings were sometimes slightly rough. It seemed to take the players a while to adjust to Zhang's split-second timing. Chen's piece, Luan Tan, combined influences from Chinese opera and Western minimalism in colourful, playful ways. It opened with a temple block struck so gently it sounded like a clucking tongue. A rippling, twisting figure was introduced by the flute and gathered momentum in different sections of the orchestra. The texture was held together with brass chords and relentless drums at climactic moments. I loved the ending with a vigorous roll on the wood blocks.

What I missed were signposts for the listener. Clear melodic outlines were elusive. The harmony spun onward and upward but lacked arrival points.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 2 in C minor, Little Russian, elicited fine playing. The crucial horn solo in the first movement was pregnant with expression. If the whole performance had been as focused as certain passages in the third Scherzo movement, it would have been an exhilarating evening. The piece is the lighter side of Tchaikovsky: the last movement has about the maximum number of repetitions a simple folk tune can bear, even with the composer's clever permutations. But what I found missing was the immersion in the romantic flow I expect from Tchaikovsky.

Alexis Alrich