As turmoil continues to take its emotional toll in Hong Kong, William Congreve’s well known (and often misquoted) line from his 1697 poem The Mourning Bride seems more poignant than ever, “Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast”. Friday evening’s invigorating performance by the HK Phil under Jaap van Zweden with celebrated soprano Renée Fleming in the Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall not only oozed charm but provided good healthy doses of beauty and wit along the way.

Reneé Fleming and Jaap van Zweden with the HK Phil
© Ka Lam | HK Phil

The detox began well as van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra set off on Wagner’s emotional rollercoaster ride of love, death and desire in Tristan und Isolde: Prelude und Liebestod. Opting here for the soprano-free version, presumably as an orchestral showcase, Friday’s (diminished) audience were kept well-perched on their pews. It had the makings of religious event. For sure, early jitters in woodwind entries lead to some murky tapering off of chords. But these were merely minor irritants. The players soon settled into a fabulous sound zone and blossomed magnificently. Regardless of dynamic, the HK Phil’s finely focused string sound never faltered and in van Zweden’s highly capable hands, the yearning phrases were deliciously shaped and sustained, never letting up in their quest for eventual resolution.

Celebrated American soprano Renée Fleming then took stage for arrangements of Franz Schubert’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra and compatriot Samuel Barber’s evocative Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for Soprano and Orchestra.

In Fleming’s soothing and expressive reading of Barber’s Knoxville, one could well have been catapulted onto a Wizard of Oz-like set, complete with rocking chairs on a rickety porches and vivid scenes of summer evening serenity as she sang lovingly of peaceful childhood memories with gorgeous lilts in her soprano and wonderful suspension and release.

The first two Schubert songs, An Silvia (To Sylvia) and Im Abendrot (At Dusk) – orchestrated by Schmalcz and Reger respectively – saw Fleming’s poetic voice shine only intermittently, due to the slightly heavy-handed orchestral accompaniment than often veiled her lighter soprano. Britten’s arrangement of The Trout however was a delight and the merry pair of clarinets cheerfully bubbled along with Fleming, now seemingly lighter and more comfortable in the string setting.

The evening’s highlight was a doozy. A humorous symphony by Shostakovich, and a ninth at that! His Symphony no. 9 in E flat major is enigmatic to say the least. Whether the Russian’s real intent was to mock the mystique surrounding the magic number 9 or to simply “stick it” to Stalin as the war drew to its close remains debatable. But one thing is for certain – it’s a fabulous romp. Leonard Bernstein often spoke of the “all out fiestas” that break out in this nod to Papa Haydn and his clever wit. Van Zweden and the HK Phil certainly lapped it up. The exposed and tricky violin passages were plucked neatly from the stratosphere by the fiddles as they made no fuss about negotiating the treacherous areas of intonation. The wistful clarinet solo that begins the Moderato and hints at brooding darkness was sublime, the piccolo sparkled throughout and the contemplative bassoon solo was shaped to perfection as it morphed into Shostakovich’s melancholic waltz and fantastic circus-like free for all Finale.

Soothing savageness through music alone is a tough ask, but may the source of elixir keep flowing.