The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra clearly wore its heart on its sleeves in naming the opening concert for the 2011/12 season “Heaven and Earth”. There could be no mistake in matching the works to the title. Saturday’s performance showcased the versatility and maturity of the orchestra in handling sharply divergent artistic intentions.

Stuart Skelton © John Wright
Stuart Skelton
© John Wright

When they wrote their Symphony No. 41, Jupiter and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), about 120 years apart, Mozart and Mahler faced similar challenges in life. Both had recently lost a daughter, were concerned about health, and had had setbacks in their careers. Both also threw themselves into feverish creative activity, but their responses to similar circumstances couldn’t be more different, each work speaking to the composer’s personality and outlook on life.

The title “Jupiter” in the Symphony no. 41 was not Mozart’s, but the work exudes the qualities often associated with the planet – optimism, generosity of spirit and good cheer. Although the lower strings were mildly dominant at times in the first movement, the orchestra accurately captured the nimble rhythm that makes the work ethereal, like angels capering on water. The upper strings began to shine in the second movement, enlivening the enchanting melody with blissful lyricism, quite appropriate to the “cantabile” marking, and then imbuing the minuet that followed with elegance and dignity. Mozart weaves a maze of intricate counterpoint around the development of a well-worn four-note theme that opens the finale. Fortunately, the orchestra escaped entrapment and deftly navigated its way through undulating quiet and loud passages with a rich and mellow tone.

As Mozart’s Jupiter symphony soars through the idyllic jollity of heaven, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde plunges the depths of human despair. Based on Han Bethge’s translation of seven Chinese poems, the song symphony is divided into six movements, the first of which seems to be a statement of the human condition and the last, discourse and resolution. The intervening movements are but digressing reflections. The competition between the large orchestra and the tenor in the first movement, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Misery of the Earth), symbolises man’s tenuous cling to happiness and his constant struggle with inevitable death. Stuart Skelton’s initial entry was no match for the strident opening theme on horns and woodwinds, but his voluminous projection, powered by solid inner strength, soon asserted itself and held its sway. He sailed through the rest of the movement with ease, despite its demands at the top of his vocal range. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung’s emotion-charged voice was a good complement to the lonely oboe in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn). She made the underlying desolation clear but perhaps went a little overboard with the vibrato. In sharp contrast, Von der Jungend (Of Youth) is bright and airy, and Mr Skelton adapted blithely to its mood.

The strings opened Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) with a light dancing rhythm that soon blossomed into triumphant celebration, with the brass interjecting irony and the solo violin making a throwaway remark before the woodwinds had the final say. Scherzo-like Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Springtime) tested the extremes of Mr Skelton’s vocal range, but he seemed to scale each height effortlessly, ending the movement with wild abandon.

The discourse in the final movement, Abschied (Farewell) is one between the singer and various soloists in the orchestra. Lasting almost as long as the other five movements combined, Abschied is Mahler’s reluctant reconciliation with – or resignation to – cruel fate, which unlike the ineluctable hammer blows in the sixth symphony, appears now in the heavy hand of the ponderous low brass. The hero was the oboe, which returned time and again with a haunting five-note theme. Michelle DeYoung was in fine form, her plaintive, resonant voice pleading on Mahler’s behalf. The orchestral interlude midway through the movement dredged the depths of agony, sounding almost like a funeral march. As Ms DeYoung repeatedly murmured “Ewig…Ewig” (Forever…Forever), the battle with loneliness appeared to have been lost.

Showing the score of Das Lied to Bruno Walter, Mahler, who himself was a remarkable conductor, is said to have asked his protégé: “Any idea how this is to be conducted? I haven’t.” Judging by the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s convincing exposition, Lawrence Renes, despite stepping in at the last minute for the temporarily indisposed artistic director Edo de Waart, didn’t suffer such doubt.