I had high expectations for last evening’s performance by the Hong Kong Philharmonic. It was conductor Elim Chan’s homecoming after a long absence since hitting the international headlines. As the first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in 2014, she has completed a year’s stint as Assistant Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and takes up a new post as Chief Conductor of NorrlandsOperan in the 2017/18 season. All signs point to a young artist with plenty of promise.

Stephen Hough, Elim Chan and the Hong Kong Philharmonic © Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil
Stephen Hough, Elim Chan and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Cheung Wai Lok | HK Phil

Chan’s stage presence was beguiling. Without exuding loud over-confidence, she commanded effective unity which would be the envy of more experienced practitioners. It was fascinating to hear her unravelling of Smetana’s Vltava from Má vlast, his set of six orchestral tone poems paying homage to various aspects of life in Bohemia. The tone was warm and the flow was smooth; the ambience was at times soothing and ethereal, as if angels were hovering overhead. The opening, with flutes and clarinets depicting two small streams slowly converging with the plush strings to form a river, morphed into an earthy dance in which Chan showed firm grip of the rhythmic vigour. As the pace quickened in the build-up to a swirling vortex, Chan unleashed the power of the full orchestra in a glorious coda that ground to a halt in a couple of colossal chords. Smetana would have been proud of this emotive and undulating evocation of the river.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, “Emperor”, is from his so called “middle” period, and the last of his output in this genre. By the time he composed it in 1809, he had lost enough of his hearing for it to be the only one of such concertos he didn’t personally premiere. If Beethoven straddles the Classical and Romantic periods, this concerto would be at the heart of the confluence. So is it a Classical or a Romantic work? Judging by their interpretation last night, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and soloist Stephen Hough’s answer would be that it is a bit of both.

The long-winded entry after the opening orchestral chord was dignified and imperial enough, but there was no suggestion of egotistic hubris. Despite confident assertion, there was no obvious hint of overbearing pulpit-pounding. Hough’s articulation was smooth and impeccable, and the orchestral riposte was measured and restrained. The orchestral lines were clear, especially where the woodwinds were concerned, and at rare moments when the soloist showed fleeting self-doubt, the orchestra lent tender support with kid gloves. As the movement progressed, the level of energy rose. Even when the orchestra stomped its feet in stubborn staccato chords, no anger accompanied the palpable verve.

The pace of the Adagio was deliberate and sluggish, which heightened the sense of reflective introspection. Hough’s spare sprinkling of rubato peppered the movement with a tinge of wistfulness. The semi-tonal transition on bassoon to the finale opened the floodgates to a flurry of eloquent outpouring on the piano. After a bout of triumphant orchestra chest-beating, the orchestra and soloist traded parts a few times, never uncoupling their hands. The orchestra then raced to the end with a thrust that set off fireworks of applause in the auditorium. Hough described the encore, Debussy’s Clair de lune, as “far away from Beethoven”. He went on to show that it was so with improvisatory and capricious rhythmic abandon.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances are said to be the summation of his life’s work, full of references to his most famous works. The Dies irae, to begin with, makes frequent appearances. In Elim Chan’s rendering, a ghostly cloud shrouded the opening to the Non allegro first movement, punctuated by taut tension and heart-pounding rhythmic excitement. The sorrowful interlude between the wind ensemble and the alto saxophone was welcome relief. An outbreak of beautifully shaped lyricism on strings, piano and harp took us way above the ghostly cloud into clear skies. Nervousness of the opening section returned briefly, only to be whisked away by more wallowing lyricism.

A pulsating waltz underpinned the Andante second movement, which began with hesitant uttering on muted brass. Anxious prevarication continued with fleeting passages on solo violin, cor anglais and oboe. The incongruous harmony and fluid rhythm in the Allegro final movement, absorbed again in ghostly menace, made me feel like being on a train constantly about to go off the rails.

It was an evening of pride and joy – pride that a home-grown Hong Kong conductor has come such a long way; and joy that she delivered superb musicality way above expectation.