Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre – review

Having spent most of its 40th-anniversary season with one eye on the past and another on the future, the Hong Kong Philharmonic came into focus last Friday with the world premiere of Quintessence by the orchestra’s 35-year-old resident composer Fung Lam.

Hong Kong-born Lam has spent 17 years in London, resulting in three BBC commissions, most recently for the 2012 Proms. His career carries particular resonance in this former British territory, where finding a suitable balance of influences and perspectives is in itself a measure of success.

Quintessence, Lam’s second commission for the HKPO, came supplied with, if not an actual programme, at least an elaborate philosophical underpinning. Where the piece’s Chinese title was drawn from Buddhism’s Five Aggregates of cognition, the “fifth essence” of its English title referred to the higher amalgam of earth, air, fire and water in ancient Greece. To the ear, however, Quintessence is a veritable alphabet of musical elements – Bartók and Britten, without venturing past the Bs – that never quite transcends its sources.

That said, between its grand gestures and delicate moments, there was much to keep the ear engaged. So too did music director Jaap van Zweden instil an overriding shape that kept the piece from being merely a series of orchestral effects. One could, in fact, imagine a cross-cultural Concerto for Orchestra somewhere in Lam’s future.

Van Zweden achieved similar coherence throughout the evening, making Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini more than a series of virtuosic variations and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique more than a sequence of brilliant episodes. Much credit in the Rachmaninov was due to pianist Boris Berezovsky, whose playing relied less on athleticism than it did on impulsive grace. So comfortable was Berezovsky, that much of its all-too-familiar material seemed to be composed on the spot.

The Berlioz, too, had its share of spontaneity, including a few tempo changes that might have seemed overly wilful had the results not been so focused. The fact that the Berlioz and Rachmaninov both quote the Dies Irae merely reinforced the point: these were not isolated performances, but rather a conscious exploration of different musical perspectives, with Quintessence setting the evening’s tone. Under Edo de Waart, the HKPO achieved a fluid airiness. Under van Zweden, their playing is also fiery and earthy, indeed achieving a higher level.


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