HK Philharmonic/van Zweden, Hong Kong Cultural Centre – review

A year ago, Jaap van Zweden inaugurated his music directorship of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra with a world premiere by the American-born Chinese composer Conrad Tao, a cracking piece by Beethoven, and a rather famous violin concerto folding the traditional melodies of China into a European symphonic context.

Last Friday, van Zweden inaugurated the Philharmonic’s 40th season as a professional ensemble with an opener by the Chinese-born American composer Bright Sheng, a cracking piece by Beethoven, and a rather famous symphony folding the traditional melodies of America into a European symphonic context.

If the programming sounds a bit formulaic, the performances were anything but. From day one, it was clear that van Zweden had inherited an ensemble well-honed by its previous music director, Edo de Waart. Last Friday, it was clear how much a year in the trenches, backed by a few reinforcements (including concertmaster Jing Wang, recently relocated from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where van Zweden is also music director) has effectively turned the Philharmonic into van Zweden’s personal playground.

Bright Sheng’s Shanghai Overture, a purported attempt to apply Stravinsky’s neoclassical style to traditional Chinese music – in this case, two contrasting operatic tunes from the Shanghai region – conveyed a suitably urban vigour. The orchestra is by now well versed in Sheng’s work, having recently recorded a full album for Naxos with the composer conducting (due out in the coming months), but under van Zweden the powerful music was a notch more astringent, scouring any sentimentality from the piece’s sweeter moments.

If Mahler was the orchestra’s signature for the past decade, then Beethoven has become the byword of van Zweden’s term. Last Friday’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet may not have had the burning brilliance of last season’s opener – really, I have never heard a Beethoven Seventh move so fast yet remain so attentive to detail – but the acute clarity and broad flexibility have grown even more nuanced.

The brilliance came after the interval in Dvorák’s New World Symphony – a choice as unabashedly populist as Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto had been at the inaugural concert. Much has been made of the work’s American character, and yet there was little trace of America. Nor was there much of Dvorák’s Bohemia. Any folk references in van Zweden’s fiery performance were from a culture of his own creation, making it both strangely disconcerting and entirely fitting for Asia, where no single influence from the west calls the shots any more.

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