It is rare for concerts these days to have a broader narrative in which components of selected pieces converge at the apex, but the Hong Kong Sinfonietta was bold in its decision-making, delivering a culmination of these ideas in the finale. The evening began with the Music Director, Yip Wing-sie, explaining the background of the pieces and highlighting these connections. One could not help but think that as all of this information was in the programme guide, it functioned merely to extend a relatively short first half of music.

Tseng Yu-chien and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© Hong Kong Sinfonietta Ltd

Daniel Lo Ting-cheung’s Autumn Rhythm eventually got matters underway. It was inspired by both Jackson Pollock’s artwork of the same name and Stravinsky’s panache for elevating rhythm to a status on par with melody and harmony. The repetitive opening gesture in the cellos and double basses was presented emphatically, allowing us to make connections with the rhythmic idea when it resurfaced. The middle portion featured concertmaster James Cuddeford in a non-pulsatory setting upon which he presented recitative-like utterances that incorporated tremolos, double stops and harmonics. The resulting canvas was atmospheric and provided great contrast to the rhythmically-focused outer portions. The Sinfonietta generally lacked the necessary energy to capture the work’s intentions, particularly the strings, which at times seemed intent on playing to themselves, rather than presenting the necessary rhythmic bite as a united front. On the surface, the work can seem like a patchwork of ideas, but it is well-constructed, unified by the opening motif that undergoes a series of manipulations.

For Mozart’s well-known Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, Taiwanese soloist Tseng Yu-chien began his fourth collaboration with the orchestra. Winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015, Tseng is an artist with a flawless technique, but a humble disposition. The opening Adagio statement by the violin in an Allegro context is odd in Mozart’s oeuvre, but Tseng managed to venerate the material and achieve transcendence, as though he had “wrongly” entered in some other movement. The orchestra and soloist soon unite and present all the typical elements of sonata form. It was a perplexing choice to include such a lengthy cadenza here.

There were countless opportunities for musical interplay between soloist and orchestra and some of these moments could have been better articulated. Yip was assured in her direction, but demonstrated a gentleness with her indications. The orchestral strings were too prevailing at times, affecting the projection of the soloist. With a conservative approach taken, both soloist and conductor missed important opportunities to fully realise the Haydnesque humour in the finale.

A Soldier's Story
© Hong Kong Sinfonietta Ltd

The second half of the concert presented the fifth instalment by the Sinfonietta of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story stemming back to 2005. Here, the narration was given largely in Putonghua by Chen Wu-kang who also danced alongside a trio of experienced practitioners in an adaption of the work by Michael Lam. The on-stage septet of musicians functions largely in an accompanying role to the physical depictions by the dancers. However, they were incorporated into the action on occasion: the clarinettist drank wine, the conductor was made to step aside at one point, and the dancers utilised the space between the musicians in an effort to better link the music to the action. Highly expressive Japanese dancer Tsuyoshi Shirai was clearly the stand out of the four in his interpretation of the soldier, initially demonstrating great reluctance, then joy and finally regret in a performance that was both rivettng and carefully constructed. Soloist Tseng too was on stage for much of the performance, looking somewhat uncomfortable without his violin, but an interesting decision that brought a unity to the entire programme. Further, the striking green platform that had been used as a podium in the first half was an essential prop that helped to illustrate multiple perspectives of time and space. Musicians worthy of note include Cuddeford on violin and Chau Chin-tung on percussion, who both captured the essence of the dances and the poignancy of the piece. With the intention of touring this production in the coming days, perhaps some attention should be given to lighting (there was only a single black out at the end) to enhance the dramatic effect even more. By elevating the significance of rhythm, highlighting the symbolism of the violin, and functionally re-calibrating artists, The Soldier’s Story illustrated a thematic integration of these important elements in a programme that was as diverse as it was bold.