With the recent axing of Hong Kong’s mask-mandate and the abundance of top notch performances around the city of late, it’s been smiles all around for concertgoers here. Thursday evening’s Hong Kong Sinfonietta concert was no exception. The concert opener was intriguing. Local composer Lam Lai’s world premiere There is no place like home (beta) – with Lai herself as electronics soloist – is an imaginary 12-year journey from Earth to Neptune inspired by NASA’s Voyager 2 space mission. Conductor Yip Wing-sie led the full forces of the Sinfonietta with focus and attention to detail, ensuring that Lai’s sound exploration was aptly atmospheric. 

Lam Lai, Yip Wing-sie and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Whooshing gusts and faint sirens howled gently throughout the woodwind and brass, perhaps alluding to lunar winds or gases, and the hazy shimmering of sul ponticello strings provided much colour. Lai’s own electronic palette included effects ranging from the static of radio transmission to the buzzing sounds of motors... maybe floating space debris? There was ample space for one’s own imagination to roam free in Lai’s score. 

In Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s brooding Eighth String Quartet, the the string players of Sinfonietta expertly underscored the despair and uncertainty that pervades the Russian’s icy Chamber Symphony in C minor. The vulnerability in sound impressed most. Concertmaster James Cuddeford led his colleagues with sensitivity and clarity, and then captivated with his own mysterious and meandering solo playing in the opening Largo.

Given the insistent and unrelenting nature of what followed though, greater bottled-up intensity into the explosion of the angry and angular Allegro molto would have grabbed more attention. Similarly, less of the nice and more of the nasty in the intermittent ‘screams’ from the whole second violin section would have enhanced the effect of torment. The tutti chordal attack over Cuddeford’s hushed sustained notes was played with unity and conviction, and the resignation and despair that pervades the concluding Largo was moving and well-captured by all.

Pavel Kolesnikov and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Rachmaninov’s much-loved Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor was the main feature, and following Pavel Kolesnikov’s thoughtful and poetic reading of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the same venue on Tuesday evening, expectations for the London-based Siberian pianist were high. Even if things didn’t always sit tight between pianist and orchestra, it was a distinctive interpretation in which Kolesnikov turned his focus to weaving and blending his textural lines with the orchestra. 

Interestingly, Kolesnikov’s treatment of the first subject – the one that “wrote itself” according to Rachmaninov – differed on each appearance; from a straight-laced statement to a more distant and dreamy take on it later on. Early awkwardness soon gave way to more assured and extrovert interplay between the young pianist and the orchestra as the Allegro progressed. Kolesnikov’s cadenza was brilliant, full of little twists and turns of articulation that set it apart from others. It was lovingly punctuated by soft, tender calls from the woodwind and horns.Wing-sie shaping lush climaxes well. Although one rubato by was clearly misunderstood by the woodwind, ultimately the excitement generated by Kolesnikov’s brilliant leaps and the warp-speed final flurry ensured the performance’s resounding success.