Hong Kong locals show remarkably few signs of mask-fatigue, remaining ever vigilant even as humidity and city temperatures soar. But given the constant stream of virtuoso pianists that has dominated Hong Kong’s classical music landscape of late, concertgoers may well be showing signs of piano concerto-fatigue.

Colleen Lee, Lio Kuokman and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam | Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

That said, it was refreshing that local pianist Colleen Lee brought lighter fare of another genre to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on Saturday following the recent Liszt and Ravel concertos featured by the Hong Kong Philharmonic. With resident conductor Lio Kuokman at the helm, Lee’s reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 26 in D major, “Coronation” – in itself a work of simplistic beauty – was all the more refreshing for its light, unfussy approach. But the orchestra’s upper strings sadly felt things differently, and an overly-earnest, lacklustre accompaniment slowly set in as the Allegro progressed. The chugging quavers were sorely short on chug, and played with a mechanical uniformity that caused the movement to drag in both tempo and character. But thankfully, Lee’s dexterous and light-hearted entries helped revive forward motion, which culminated in a solo cadenza of invention and wit, providing sparkling glimpses of Mozartian cheek and a less ‘well-behaved’ side to her playing.

Lee’s interpretation of the simple Larghetto slow movement was exquisite, and despite the dreaded return of dragging, untreated quaver accompaniment in the violins, she shaped the naive theme with much grace and delicacy. The interplay between orchestra and soloist was more successful in the joyful Allegretto finale, a movement marked by Lee’s fine dexterity in the semiquaver passages. In a surprise move, Kuokman then joined the soloist at the keyboard for the evening’s encore; a whirling and impressively played movement from a Mozart sonata for four hands.

Colleen Lee and Lio Kuokman
© Ka Lam | Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Whereas the HK Phil sound failed to convince in Mozart, it proved their greatest strength in Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. In a vivid depiction of the might and beauty of the River Rhine, Kuokman maintained ebb and flow in both outer Lebhaft (lively) movements, punctuated by impressive wind and brass interjections and the notably brilliant horn playing from principal Jiang Lin and his section. Right at home now in their sound zone, the strings of the HK Phil also relished the Scherzo, the symphony’s quasi-Rheinland dance, and confidently alternated between playing of strength and beauty. Aside from some messy violin intonation that opened the gentle third movement, an amiable atmosphere of peace prevailed, embellished by lovely clarinet and bassoon playing. Excellent trombone chorales in the solemn hymn-like Feierlich fourth movement added an aura of religious mystery, which Kuokman expertly passed on throughout the orchestra as things developed in richness and sonority. The fifth movement was fittingly triumphant across the board.

Lio Kuokman conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam | Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

The fascinating opener commissioned by the HK Phil was the world premiere of Glimmering Lights, Cascading Heights by Hong Kong composer Chan Kai-Young; a brief work that explores orchestral colour and utilises string harmonics (glimmering lights) and descending gestures (cascading heights) to depict hope in the midst of gloomy challenges. Kai-Young concludes his own programme notes with, “May our triumph come soon in reality.” Let’s leave that one for now. Schumann triumphed on Saturday.