“Cultural melting-pot” is a term so often used to describe Hong Kong that it has become a cliché. On Saturday, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra provided a living example of how the city relishes a mixture of cultural influences in a programme of works by French composers incorporating clear foreign influences, predominantly from Spain.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © Decca / Kasskara
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Decca / Kasskara

Soon after accepting ballerina Maud Allan’s commission to write a ballet based on an Egyptian legend of a dancing girl, Debussy tired of her persistent interference, and gave up orchestrating the original piano work after only a few pages. Composer Charles Koechlin orchestrated the rest under Debussy’s supervision and the final result seems to have won Debussy’s explicit approval. Khamma, the opening work of the concert, is dark and sombre, evoking fearful foreboding even in its most lyrical parts. Purring tremolando on low strings augmented by mystical woodwinds with an Eastern flavour supplied most of the initial atmosphere of an eerie ritual. Under the crisp and clear direction of Jun Märkl, the orchestra injected dynamism and drama into a work which I imagine can be quite mundane and colourless under less steadfast leadership.

I have been a fan of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 5, “Egyptian” for a long time, but Saturday was the first time I had heard it live in the concert hall. In the century since his death, we seem to have forgotten that Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy and virtuoso concert pianist who could play any of Beethoven’s sonatas on demand as an encore, in addition to being a composer of over 300 works, including five symphonies and ten concertos.

The fifth piano concerto wastes no time with an orchestral introduction. After a few perfunctory woodwind chords, the piano enters quietly and soon joins the orchestra in a soaring surge that comes back time and again throughout the Allegro animato first movement. There is no question that Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a superb virtuoso. His even pacing blended perfectly with the orchestra, although his delightfully delicate touch was at times drowned by it. The second movement sounded mildly faster than its Andante marking, but the soloist was very effective in bringing out the mosaic of cultural influences – traces of Spanish flamenco, Indonesian gamelan and Arabic zither were clearly discernible. I could almost swear that I heard a snippet from Albénez’s Suite Española, and was surprised how much more lyrical the orchestra was than the soloist in the so-called “Nubian love song”. The final movement, Molto allegro, begins with a pulsating rhythm that mimics the engine of a steam boat. After delivering the most hummable melody in the entire concerto, the piano then joins the orchestra in a spectacular and triumphant finish.

The rest of the evening after the intermission was devoted to Ravel, who originally composed Alborada del gracioso (“The Jester’s Morning Song”) for the piano as part of the Miroirs suite. In keeping with the character of the jester in the comedies of Calderón and Vega, Alborada is full of life, humour and variety. After an introduction on pizzicato strings and woodwinds with an energetic beat, the bassoon leads the way with a languid and wistful tune. The addition of castanets puts paid to any doubt about the Spanish origin of the musical idea. Following further rhythmic meandering with a tragic undertone, a flourish of brass glissando brings matters to a close in a fit of deflation, like an out-of-steam engine grinding to a halt. Under Jun Märkl’s firm direction, the orchestra kept up a steady pace in buoyant mood.

Rapsodie Espagnole, completed only two years after Alborada, encapsulates two contrasting Spanish themes – vigorous dance rhythms and drowsy lethargy. Mr Märkl maintained a thoughtful balance between the slow and oppressive “Prélude à la nuit” first movement and the festive furore in the “Feria” finale, carrying off some toe-tapping dance episodes in between with panache and gusto galore.

I have often thought of Boléro as a fine supplement to Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Individual instruments playing largely the same melody one after another over a bed of repetitive percussion form a splendid gallery of dynamic ranges, musical effects and orchestral timbres. The Hong Kong Philharmonic showed concentration, control and resilience, especially on the part of the percussionist, in this careful construction of one drum beat building up to a full orchestral onslaught. No wonder Jun Märkl singled out percussionist Aziz D. Barnard Luce for presentation to the audience at the end. The Hong Kong Philharmonic did not beat the best performance of the work I have heard so far, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, but it came close.