After a series of more adventurous programming decisions in recent months, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra returned tonight to more standard fare. The much-lauded conductor Leonard Slatkin not only took the reins in a guest conductor’s role, but surely had influence in the selection of the all-American themed first half. The contemporary composer Christopher Rouse opened the programme with a theatrically-inspired depiction of a machine perpetually in motion The Infernal Machine, which greatly contrasted with the sacred text setting of Bernstein’s UK-commissioned Chichester Psalms. Nestled in between was Barber’s profoundly moving Adagio for Strings, which brought further depth to an emotionally charged trio.

Leonard Slatkin addresses the Hong Kong audience
© Ka Lam/HK Phil

Rouse’s work is made up of a series of gestures, punctuations and an almost inexhaustibility of ostinati and motivic fragments, which is entirely devoid of structural division. Slatkin had done his homework here, guiding the orchestra with crisp direction necessary to communicate the complex series of rhythmic utterances. Some of the woodwinds even got to include the sounds of singing glasses, which contributed to a unique sound palette and a novel approach to the work’s harmonic organisation.

It is hard to know exactly where to position Barber’s Adagio for Strings in programming repertoire – opening a concert with the work can sully anything that follows with its profound solemnity and closing out a set of works can taint anything that has come before it. In fact, Barber likely faced a similar dilemma, as earlier this piece had featured as the central movement of his 1936 String Quartet, but it was elevated from this context, presumably because of its heightened affective punch. Slatkin held the auditorium captive with a lengthy wait at the start. The resulting effect was mesmerising. Through a series of very flowing gestures, the strings responded by creating a moving tapestry of interconnected lines, a richness of sonority and an emotionally wrought interpretation.

Eton College Chapel Choir
© Ka Lam/HK Phil

Written with a call to address what Leonard Bernstein referred to as “crisis in faith”, Chichester Psalms continued the stirring sentiments of the Barber with the hope that we can unite in a universal prayer for peace. Lacking woodwind, there were moments, most notably in the first movement, in which the Eton College Chapel Choir could not be heard over the forces of this reduced orchestra. This was improved in the second and final moments where Bernstein opts for an even more refined textural accompaniment to the psalms. The boy soprano solo in the central movement had the necessary purity of sound, but lacked a more complete understanding of the melodic shaping. The choir was reasonably polished in diction and direction, but did not always capture a fully united sound. In general, the choir fared better in their quieter moments and they were particularly effective in the closing a cappella section, delivering the work’s message for peace. The choir encored with a motet from the alumnus Hubert Parry, which appears to be a signature piece for the group.

It is unclear how much of the Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor, mirrors his own personal circumstances. For the musicologist, he did leave a note in the early stages of formulating the first movement that references fate and its inevitability. However, there is little evidence that the symphony is programmatic and any speculation that this statement is still applicable can only be construed as conjecture. Tchaikovsky uses a cyclic structure with a motto theme heard at the very outset that unifies each of the movements. Thus, it is important to initially present this theme with an understated memorability, as its impact will grow in statue and substance over the course of the work. Without this reference, it is impossible to understand its significance, nor gauge the symphony’s meaning. Slatkin understands the structural model and thus ensured that the dotted rhythms were carefully articulated, almost clipped, which contributed to the intention of highlighting the theme’s unique features.

Leonard Slatkin and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ka Lam/HK Phil

The brass in particularly deserves recognition for its polished contributions and wide dynamic palette. Other noteworthy moments included Benjamin Moermond’s well-projected bassoon line and the underscored clarinets at the opening. Unfortunately, some of Slatkin’s tempo choices, most especially in the first movement, were self-indulgent and resulted in sentimentalising the material.

The second movement was clearly the highlight and this was recognised by some audience members who could not help but applaud in uncustomary fashion at the mid-point in the symphony. Jiang Lin’s horn solo was beautifully shaped and controlled, communicating that Tchaikovsky is indeed a master of melodic invention. Although this work unmistakably demonstrates the Russian’s finesse for structural design and orchestration, there are aspects that are Beethovenian in character – whether it is the cyclic design, the transformation from dark to light, or the extended final coda. The Philharmonic brought out this duality and closed the evening on a note of optimism.