Former Hong Kong Philharmonic Music Director David Atherton returned to his hometown on Saturday to lead the orchestra in a concert entitled “The King of Instruments”, a reference to works on the programme involving the organ, an instrument rarely heard in the symphony hall.

David Atherton © Hong Kong Philharmonic
David Atherton
© Hong Kong Philharmonic

The evening got off to a rousing start with the fanfare from the ballet La Péri (“The Fairy”) by Dukas about Prince Iskender’s encounter with a fairy, from whom he steals the flower of immortality. The fairy performs a dance for the prince and gets close enough to regain possession of the flower, condemning him to a mortal fate similar to any other common man. Dukas added the fanfare shortly before the ballet’s première, almost as an afterthought. Featuring only the brass section of the orchestra, the work is an uplifting three minutes of exultant pomp and circumstance, fully reflecting the regal grandeur of a princely caravan procession.

As Professor of Orchestration in the Paris Conservatoire for 25 years in the early part of the 20th century, Dukas was well respected by his contemporaries and counted Olivier Messiaen and Joaquín Rodrigo among his students. Yet, being a self-critical perfectionist, he destroyed many of his compositions. Had Disney not chosen to use it in the movie Fantasia in 1940, even the symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice could have languished in relative obscurity to this day. A showcase of orchestral colours, it is programmatically faithful to the Goethe poem of the same name from which it springs, as Mickey Mouse in Fantasia vividly demonstrates.

All hell breaks loose as a muted trumpet interrupts the quiet established by strings and woodwinds when the sorcerer’s apprentice uses his half-honed magical skills to get a broom to fetch water. The mayhem worsens as the apprentice fails to bring the broom under control and instead creates an army of clones. The mainstay of the work is a persistent march on bassoons that traces the broom as it fetches water clumsily and multiplies. The success of the orchestra’s performance on Saturday was impeccable timing throughout the work, using musical order to portray physical chaos.

Looking at the organ that scaled the wall behind the stage, with pipes many stories high going all the way up to the ceiling, I could not help thinking that it must be the most expensive and least used instrument in the concert hall, but organist David Drury easily justified this gigantic installation with the next two works on the programme.

While working on his organ concerto to fulfil a commission, Francis Poulenc experienced moments of traumatic epiphany in 1935 with the gruesome death of a friend. A subsequent pilgrimage rekindled his adoption of the Catholic faith. Perhaps this is why the Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G minor he completed in 1938 harks back to Baroque predecessors, with occasional suggestions of Gothic solemnity. Unable to control his urge to be impish, he also peppered the concerto with moody irreverence. Mr Drury stunned the audience with the Cultural Centre’s 93-stop, 8,000-pipe Austrian organ, sometimes blasting it, sometimes cajoling it and sometimes caressing it. The result was 20 minutes of rollercoaster exhilaration.

A kaleidoscope of styles, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony in two movements is both nostalgic and contemporary. It’s easy to mistake the opening section of the first movement for something written by Mendelssohn; yet the Poco adagio second section could well have been lifted from the most romantic output of Tchaikovsky. Energetic string phrases and scaling piano passages launch the second movement in a joyous mood, culminating in a celebratory second section so magnificent and majestic that it could be over-the-top even for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The climax on Saturday was not the triumphant finale, but David Atherton’s treatment of the Poco adagio in the first movement. His tempo was perhaps slightly faster than one would expect, but the gentle warmth of the organ as a soft cushion to the impassioned lyricism gave me goose pimples. It’s puzzling how some critics could possibly describe Saint-Saëns’ oeuvre as “bad music well written”.

David Atherton’s homecoming to the Hong Kong Philharmonic with organist David Drury received ecstatic approval from the audience. With their performance, I’m more convinced than ever that no recording can even hint at the experience of listening to an organ live.

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