Be it the allure of the West, the appreciation of flawless Russian musicianship and technique, or the sights and sounds of the Orient, this Hong Kong Philharmonic concert was united by exoticism and other foreign-inspired themes. Cleverly embedding these undertones in a manner that took us on a globally-connected journey, the programme began with the western-influenced Riding on the Wind.

Long Yu
© Yan Liang

Guo Wenjing is a well-respected composer in mainland China, having contributed to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics and having held the post of Head of the Composition Department of the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Riding was commissioned to mark the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty after its 156-year British rule. Its premiere actually took place on the date of the handover – 1 July 1997 – and featured a large military band in addition to a standard romantic-sized orchestra.

Given the volatile political climate in Hong Kong at the moment, this work is perhaps somewhat controversial. However, ironically, the work contains a number of non-Chinese elements, not least the harmonic palette and its transient reminiscence of American film music.

As soon as Long Yu concluded his appreciation of the opening applause, he launched into a grand gesture to initiate the Chinese drum opening. Quickly followed by brass fanfares and the full orchestra, the work transitioned into an exploration of multi-metred pulsating rhythms and western harmonic progressions. The middle section is introduced by the harp and features more Chinese-infused solos for oboe, horn and trumpet, each delivered with clarity, control and confidence. Containing material from culturally diverse backgrounds, one wonders what Guo truly intends with this work, but whatever its political underpinnings, Long Yu managed to elicit a blaze of grandness and motivic fire.

Continuing in America, but now with Russian connections, the programme turned to Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto. This is a work of dark contemplation, completed at the conclusion of World War 2. Cellist Alban Gerhardt’s opening statement maintained the sombre tone of the orchestral introduction, quickly ascending to the upper reaches of the instrument’s tessitura – apparently a favoured register for the work’s Russian dedicatee.

The orchestration of the work is Mahlerian in style, which allows selected members of the orchestra to shine, but in a way that never intrudes on the soloist’s narrative. There are tremendous technical demands on the cellist here: from the harmonic passages that are fiendishly difficult to ensure pitch accuracy to the challenges of projecting the harmonics, to say nothing of the breakneck pace in which one needs to shift between registers. Most noticeably in the first movement cadenza, Gerhardt made his 1710 Matteo Goffriller deliver a wide range of tone colours, allowing it to display a penetrating presence at times and distant reflection at others. On the one hand, he is an artist who relishes technical demands, but more importantly views his role on stage as an educator – excelling at giving us a comprehensive understanding of this much under-played work. This observation was further enhanced in his encore – a deeply inward and profoundly comprehensive interpretation of a movement from a Bach Cello Suite.    

The thread of intercultural travel finds it ultimate destination in the ancient capital of Crimea. Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired by his travels to create this unprecedented orchestral work in four movements, each drawn from one of the tales of The Arabian Nights.

Scheherazade is a lesson in masterly orchestration and Long Yu is a director who knows when to bring out important motivic material and to create the necessary atmosphere to tell the tales. He takes a no-nonsense approach to his indications – clean, methodical and direct. With the concertmaster assigned to representing the tale-weaving Scheherazade, Jing Wang presented the statements in a suitably mesmerising manner. Other highlights included clarinettist Andrew Simon’s solo in the second movement in which he almost managed to halt time with a cleverly controlled high note executed an almost unperceivable dynamic.

There were a few moments of questionable intonation, most notably in the horns, but these were minor blemishes in a very polished programme. Whether it was the potentially divisive opening work, the relatively unknown Barber concerto, or the lead up to the holiday season, the audience size was noticeably down. It was a pity that such a culturally rich and musically diverse programme was missed by so many.