Guest conductor Ken Lam was passionate about the eclectic choice of music for Saturday’s Hong Kong Sinfonietta concert. With great enthusiasm, the Hong Kong-born maestro prefaced Samuel Barber’s Symphony no. 1 with some succinct excerpts that served as a nifty heads-up for listeners. It shed light on the main theme and its subsequent guises in the “All-American” symphony which made for an enhanced listening experience during what was arguably Saturday evening’s highlight.

Ken Lam conducts the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

The Sinfonietta’s rendition of Barber’s symphony was engaging and grandeur was the order of the day, with brilliant surging in the strings, fine brass chorales, and a notably strong showing from the viola section in the opening Allegro. The precision of the violin’s triplets set the trend for much of Scherzo section as tension was increased notch by notch. In stark contrast, the wonderfully mournful solo oboe playing by Kenneth Sze Yu-hey in the extended Andante tranquillo was a delight. A long and intense crescendo finally led to a mighty Finale powered by the augmented orchestra.

“There is so much to admire in the work that it cannot be dismissed as a piece of buffoonery,” wrote an anonymous Times critic following the performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments at the 1924 Salzburg Festival. Given the curious combination of wind and brass instruments and the frenetic scales and rhythms found in the “neoclassical” Octet, this was generous amongst the scathing reviews of the time. But as both bassoonists and the clarinettist demonstrated with bravura, Stravinsky’s interplay is far from buffoonery and, in fact, delightfully entertaining. While steering the fine ensemble of Sinfonietta players, Lam visibly relished the Finale’s Russian Circle Dance and its gentle jazz licks as he also moved to the groove.

The delayed Asian premiere (Covid-induced) of London-born composer Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury (2019) was the opener. The work, co-commissioned by Hong Kong Sinfonietta and two other ensembles, was written at a time when highly-charged politics were at play. The title, taken from Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, is more or less a rebuke to world leaders and their constant threat to world peace. The score is a fascinating: an imaginative fusion of light and dark aspects, new and old devices, and even a touch of Haydnesque humour. Clyne has explained that she drew inspiration from Haydn’s Symphony no. 60, where the strings come to a grinding halt and re-tune, and a snippet from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was also included. The Sinfonietta under Lam played with energy and precision and the work ended with a recorded voiceover of Shakespeare’s well-known stanza. Would a live actor on stage been more effective? Perhaps. 

Luka Faulisi, Ken Lam and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

For all its intrinsic eccentricity and playful wit that one associates with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, young French violinist Luka Faulisi’s playing underwhelmed. Though clearly gifted, an obvious disconnect with his colleagues on stage translated into a lack of communication with Saturday’s audience. Prokofiev famously said to David Oistrakh while rehearsing the second theme of the Andantino, “play it as though you’re trying to convince someone of something”. If only Faulisi had been convincing and narrated a story from this skittish music. The 1923 premiere of Prokofiev’s concerto didn’t go so well either, where it was completely overshadowed by... Stravinsky’s Octet!