As the Hong Kong Philharmonic celebrates the opening of its 45th season as a professional orchestra, it also begins to share the talents of Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, with the New York Philharmonic. Having earned the HK Phil plenty of artistic credentials since he took over from Edo de Waart some six years ago, van Zweden begins his concurrent appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in the 2018/19 season later this month. He has chosen a work by Stravinsky for the opening of both.

Jaap van Zweden
© Wong Kin Chung

Few works by Mozart are known for their percussion, but the overture to his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio certainly gives the often neglected section of the orchestra a run for their money. For season opening, they had a field day. It wasn’t as if van Zweden, known for his discipline and attention to detail, was going to let the orchestra loose. He did nevertheless relent enough for the impish fun inherent in references to Eastern material to shine brightly in the delivery. A fitting work of lightness and good cheer to kick us off.

In the century since Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sparked a riot at its première, the composer’s oeuvre has become regular fare, although his Violin Concerto is not often performed. Not trained as a violinist, Stravinsky was beset with self-doubt after receiving a commission via his publisher from American composer and diplomat Blair Fairchild. Fortunately, Fairchild’s protégé the virtuoso Samuel Dushkin came quickly to his rescue.

Soloist Leila Josefowicz performed the work with passion but not unbearable intensity, making it approachable and audience-friendly. She probably brought out more emotional content than the composer would have approved, Stravinsky having declared his goal to be form in the years prior to writing the concerto. The appellations he gave to the movements – Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio – are reminiscent of earlier times.

It wasn’t plain sailing. After the initial stretched dissonant chord in Toccata, which Stravinsky called its “passport”, Josefowicz struggled to rise above the choppy brass and winds. After a short tussle, she eventually regained her footing to tame the rest of the orchestra. Aria I opened with the same discordant stretched chord, but began to unwind slowly with sparse winds and brass after brief pizzicatos, slowly building up to a climax of torment.

Solo violin and brass opened Aria II with more cries of anguish, and the extended drawls tore the heart apart. A drastic change of mood occurred with the Capriccio, in which a frenetically pulsating rhythm broke out, allowing the solo violin now to skate around the high register. In contrast to the two previous movements, this was bouncy and cheerful, with soloist and orchestra engaging in a dramatic race to the end.

Rachmaninov’s confidence returned with a vengeance in his Symphony no. 2 in E minor after the poor reception of his First almost a decade earlier. Although not containing as many captivating lyrical passages as you would find in Tchaikovsky, it has enough sweeping and undulating melodic lines that allow many a conductor to just let the music carry the audience along. Van Zweden wouldn’t take such an easy way out. After the dark opening on low strings, he seemed to have pushed the dynamic a little too hard, reducing variety in the extended first movement. The cor anglais and clarinet, providing touching section dividers, and the timpani and bassoon a sense of frantic nervousness, were redeeming features.

The galloping first theme was just what the doctor ordered in the second movement, paving the way for the lulling clarinet, eventually letting the brass and winds on a trot bring the movement to a subdued close. It’s hard to resist dwelling on the saccharine lyricism in the Adagio third movement, but van Zweden avoided that with plenty of reflective poise in sustained forward pulsation.

A convergence of material drawn from previous movements in inexorable surges of energy brought the final movement to an increasing sense of glory. It was as if Rachmaninov was saying: “We’ve meandered enough in pensive nostalgia, let’s pick ourselves up and celebrate life!” And celebrate it he did, with much fanfare among all sections of the orchestra, wallowing in undulating waves of mellifluousness. The orchestra brought everything to a rousing blast to show us that they meant business – and bring us back for more in the rest of the season.