At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any obvious theme that connects the four works on the programme. On closer inspection, perhaps the mysterious elements of the East – anywhere East of Vienna, that is – provide the clue. Although it might not have been conductor Karina Canellakis’ intention to focus on tunes and rhythms borrowed from the East in the works, her meticulous attention to the score brought out the best individual characteristics of each, and created a mood for an evening worthy of an Arabian feast.

Karina Canellakis © Todd Rosenberg
Karina Canellakis
© Todd Rosenberg

The overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart, with its boisterous rhythm and tingling accoutrements from the percussion, threw the party open in high spirits. The pensive interlude that follows was soon overtaken by the romp of the opening theme to a rousing close. Lunging and stooping in clear gestures to get the most out of the orchestra, Canellakis infused Mozart’s overture not only with energy, but poise and majesty. The cymbals, triangle, drums and piccolo were embellishments to the scurrying strings that never overwhelmed them.

Given that solo violinist Augustin Hadelich’s bowing is light and delicate it wouldn’t have been a surprise had his part been buried by the orchestra in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major. Yet, the cooperation between soloist and orchestra produced a result that is at the same time intimate and thoughtful, with both avoiding the limelight but emerging triumphant as one. Many a fine violinist has made mincemeat of the solo entry in the first movement, unusually marked Allegro aperto, thrown off by the sudden change of pace to Adagio. In contrast, Hadelich’s entry was elegant, refreshing and unpretentious.  Throughout the rest of the movement, he maintained a sense of child-like fun bantering with the orchestra but never losing poise and dignity. The cadenza for him was not just an opportunity to show off technical skills, but to reflect on the import of material in the rest of the movement in a more condensed and varied form.

Augustin Hadelich and Karina Canellakis © Cheung Chi Wa | Hong Kong Philharmonic
Augustin Hadelich and Karina Canellakis
© Cheung Chi Wa | Hong Kong Philharmonic
The Adagio second movement is a gem of lyricism and episodic contemplation. Soloist and orchestra now sat back, kicked off their shoes, and reminisced as if they were old friends. As we hear what is said, most of it beautifully played by soloist and orchestra alike, we also occasionally glimpsed what is left unsaid, upon a wink of understanding between the two. The cadenza was less extensive than that in the first movement, but nevertheless gave Hadelich plenty of room to explore its unhurried musings.

The soloist’s light-hearted and melodious minuet opens the Rondeau third movement with aplomb, leading the orchestra into a foot-stomping interlude which gives the concerto its “Turkish” nickname. As the string players struck their instruments with the back of their bows in an accentuated rhythm, the soloist provided an overlay of rapid dance-like reveries. The opening theme returned for both soloist and orchestra to bid farewell in a cheerful mood.  Hadelich’s strength in Mozart also showed itself to be a weakness in Paganini, whose Caprice no. 5 in A minor he played as an encore. Technically competent, he came up short on devilish impishness.

Perhaps in a post-war attempt to revive a career somewhat blighted by rumours of having sympathised with the Nazis, Richard Strauss turned his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), which had premièred in 1919, into a symphonic poem. The result, a “Symphonic Fantasy”, is a grand score fit for a Hollywood movie. A few bad-tempered grunts on low brass at the opening soon give way to an extended lament on strings and a Disney-like fairy-tale frolic with the help of harps and percussion. After a few dancing episodes, the trombone launches into a gloriously lyrical solo – for me the highlight of the work – that refuses to go away despite the strings’ attempt to suppress it, eventually assimilating it into a return to a more assertive version of the opening lament. After a triumphant summation replete with organ, the work draws to a close in an introspective mood. Conductor Karina Canellakis’ broad vision captured the variety of mood swings perfectly and fully exploited all the lyrical and grand-standing opportunities.

The “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’ opera Salome is a mixture of sensual seduction and grotesque desire. The music tracks Salome’s performance for father King Herod, beginning with a frenzied and rather horrifying rhythm that leads to an exotic melody on oboe. While there are passages of supreme lyricism, the sense of grotesque horror has the final say. With boundless energy and consummate skill, Karina Canellakis tamed a programme of disparate works into a whole that excited and pleased at the same time.