Saturday was a woodwind-led French evening with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Works by two French composers bookended Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major in which the soloist was also French; and woodwinds featured prominently in all three. The performances, alas, lacked some inspiration, although Ravel's ballet Ma Mère l’Oye proved a worthy highlight. 

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is musical animation of a poem by his friend Mallarmé about a faun’s recollection of his dreamy exploits seducing nymphs. Ethereal woodwinds floating on a bed of fluid string support weave a collage of sensual encounters into a phantasmagoria of shifting and ambiguous tonality, nay atonality. Leonard Bernstein considered the work important enough to devote a good part of one Norton Lecture expounding its musical and structural ingenuity.

The flute that kicked off proceedings on Saturday was hardly lilting and flighty enough, and the orchestral rendering came up short in depicting the ethereal and sultry atmosphere of Mallarmé's poem. The hazy and mysterious world of a mythological humanoid’s amorous adventures inspired neither curiosity nor otherworldliness in conductor Yip Wing-sie's reading. The strings and harps conjured up a good sense of fluidity and languor, but the woodwinds couldn’t deliver the necessary frolicsome merriment. A century on, the use of a tritone has become blasé and no longer elicits discomfort, but that should be no excuse for blandness and lack of spontaneity.

Clarinettist Raphaël Sévère’s musical credentials are impeccable, having been admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris at the age of 14 and obtained the master’s degree with high honours at 19. Winner of numerous prizes and competitions, he last appeared in Hong Kong playing the Weber concerto with the Sinfonietta. Nor is he a stranger to the Mozart concerto, having performed it with the Macao Youth Symphony Orchestra at age 11 for the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birthday. His virtuosity on the instrument was loud and clear. The octave leaps, deep dive into the lower register, and sudden twists and turns were no challenge to his technical competence, shining in particular in the ebullient Rondo finale. The orchestra, on the other hand, was a little flaccid, at times sounding as if they were dialling it in. His rapport with the ensemble was good. Yet as the last purely instrumental work Mozart completed, its maturity in language and expression is perhaps beyond the composer’s age. Neither orchestra nor soloist captured the subtle and elusive streak of prescient melancholy below the veneer of lustre and cheer.

Last on the programme was the ballet version of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), a piano duet which evolved into a fully orchestrated musical odyssey. The wondrous chirping of woodwinds, trumpet fanfare and lulling strings in the Prélude set the scene for a series of sonic adventures to follow. The panoply of musical material was a boon to the Sinfonietta, as the ensemble came to life with the waspish undulations of Danse du rouet (Dance of the Spinning Wheel). The lullaby-like duet between flute and oboe was quiet and calm in Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane). The clarinet Beauty was superbly airy and lyrical against the ponderous contrabassoon Beast in Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversation between Beauty and the Beast), climaxing in nervous strings broken up by a crash on cymbals.

Petit Poucet (Hop-o’-My-Thumb) featured a mournful oboe echoed by the cor anglais, flute and taut strings in Tom Thumb’s doomed attempt to find his way out of the forest. In Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodes) all the percussion instruments came together to give a swirling impression of a gamelan, imitating a busy swarm of insect-like creatures called “pagodes”. Languorous strings followed a mournful violin, underpinned by the horn, to open a glorious episode of luminosity in Le Jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden), in which the Sleeping Beauty wakes in the brightly lit garden.

Ma Mère l’Oye was a timely reminder that the Sinfonietta is capable of reaching beyond technical proficiency to musical excellence.