Jaap van Zweden at the HK Phil's season launch © Keith Hiro
Jaap van Zweden at the HK Phil's season launch
© Keith Hiro
Jaap van Zweden’s star is in the ascendant. The Dutch conductor takes over the reins as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 2018, one of the most prestigious classical music posts in the United States. Yet last year he also had his contract extended at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra through to 2021-22, meaning the maestro will be clocking up the air-miles for a few seasons to come. It’s good news for Hong Kong. During his five seasons at the helm, he has raised the orchestra’s international profile, particularly through his ongoing Ring Cycle in concert which reaches its conclusion in the new season, which has just been announced.

Götterdämmerung is the clear highlight of the 2017/18 season, van Zweden having once again assembled a strong cast for two concert performances which will be recorded for CD release on Naxos. For the final part of the cycle, there’s a new Siegfried and Brünnhilde in place. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s bright, focused tone should suit the demands of the rebel Valkyrie, now awoken from her enforced slumber and besotted with her unruly nephew, Siegfried. Daniel Brenna has the vocal strength and stamina to take on this killer of a role, the reluctant hero who unwittingly betrays Brünnhilde and loses both the Ring and his life. Shen Yang and Amanda Majeski are Gunther and Gutrune, the siblings who are manipulated by Mikhail Petrenko’s slippery Hagen. Michelle DeYoung is luxury casting as Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s loyal sister. With van Zweden willing to take risks with tempi – contrasting slow and grand with swift and impetuous – this final episode should make for riveting listening.

Jaap van Zweden © Cheung Chi Wai | HK Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden
© Cheung Chi Wai | HK Philharmonic
There’s more Wagner in the season, although in Beijing. 2017 marks the 50th anniversaries of the Salzburg Easter Festival – founded by Herbert von Karajan – and the Beijing Music Festival. Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic have been invited by Long Yu to the Beijing festival to play in Karajan’s own 1967 Salzburg production of Die Walküre, to be given in the presence of Karajan’s widow.

During the season, van Zweden conducts some of the ‘big beasts’ of the orchestral repertoire. Having heard him conduct a terrific Shostakovich 5 in Paris last season, his ‘Leningrad’ would be high on my wish list. Those giants of epic length – Mahler and Bruckner – feature with performances of the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies respectively, while Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will really test the HK Phil’s mettle. As van Zweden heads off to New York, there’s Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, composed in “the New World” though arguably more about the composer’s longing for his Bohemian homeland than an American postcard.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a massive work, comprising six songs (for two singers) using texts from Die chinesische Flöte, a volume of ancient Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty, rendered into German by Hans Bethge. Principal Guest Conductor Long Yu pairs Mahler’s Song of the Earth with a work of the same title by Ye Xiaogang, which uses the original Chinese poems. Composed for soprano and baritone, as opposed to the tenor and mezzo employed by Mahler, Ye Xiaogang’s Song of the Earth was premiered in 2005 (with Long Yu conducting the China Philharmonic). Hearing both Chinese and German texts set by composers a century apart in a single concert should prove fascinating.

Yuja Wang © Norbert Kniat | DG
Yuja Wang
© Norbert Kniat | DG
There are plenty of guest conductors and star soloists on the 2017/18 bill, none starrier than Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who helps launch the season with her own Yuja! series, in which she performs Tchaikovsky’s mighty First Piano Concerto as well as Beethoven’s Second, both with van Zweden conducting. In between, she plays an evening of chamber music with principals of the HK Phil. Tchaikovsky and Brahms had a prickly relationship, but there’s no denying the beauty of the two works programmed together: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor – a gem of the piano trio repertoire – and Brahms’ Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, the one which ends with the toe-tapping Rondo alla Zingarese finale.

Charles Dutoit, peerless in French repertoire, includes Berlioz and Ravel on his Hong Kong programme, while Vladimir Ashkenazy pairs Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with Alexander Glazunov’s scintillating Violin Concerto where the soloist is frequent Ashkenazy collaborator, Esther Yoo. Christoph Eschenbach is another guest conductor, pairing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (with Tzimon Barto as soloist) with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Jun Märkl is another conductor with excellent credentials in French repertoire; he leads the orchestra in Saint-Saëns and Debussy (La Mer) as well as another seascape, Circulating Ocean by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra © Cheung Chi Wai
The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Cheung Chi Wai
Among the star soloists, Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays Gershwin (the Variations on “I got rhythm”), while Nikolai Lugansky performs Rachmaninov. The Hong Kong Philharmonic also nurtures local talent, Philip Chu, director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus, joining Swiss-Chinese pianist Mischa Cheung to perform Final Fantasy, symphonic music from the hit video game, composed by Nobuo Uematsu.

Leonard Bernstein’s centenary is marked by a number of works, most notably a performance of his iconic score West Side Story to a screening of the 1961 film, and an evening of Lenny’s Broadway hits, conducted by John Wilson, who spins magic from the big show tunes.

From Broadway to video games to Valhalla, the Hong Kong Phil offers a season which is richly varied.

Click here for the full season listing.


Article sponsored by Hong Kong Philharmonic Society Ltd