For the 40th anniversary season opening gala of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, it was fitting that Music Director Jaap van Zweden should have chosen Bright Sheng’s Shanghai Overture, which was originally commissioned by the composer’s alma mater, the Shanghai Conservatory, for its own 80th anniversary in 2007.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic © Cheung Chi-Wai / HK Phil
Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Cheung Chi-Wai / HK Phil

Sheng speculates in the programme note about what the result would be if he applied techniques of the neo-Classical style of the 1920s and 30s to traditional Chinese classical or folk music. What the Hong Kong Phil showed him on Friday was the uncanny ability of Western orchestral wind instruments to simulate the sounds of Chinese ones. The rhythm is quite another matter, and it is here that the orchestra faltered a little, somewhat unsure exactly what it should be, even with the help of the temple-blocks. Much as the rendering of the melodic material from two traditional Chinese tunes was captivating, the pulsating rhythm at times sounded cluttered.

“It was an emperor of a concerto,” one of Napoleon’s officers stationed in Vienna is said to have exclaimed. Whether or not this is the true origin of the apt sobriquet, Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto is a giant of the repertoire. The so called “Emperor Concerto” gives the soloist a lot of space to be assertive – space that Jean-Yves Thibaudet exploited but didn’t abuse. While clearly showing off his technical mastery of the details, he deferred enough to the orchestra not to sound impudent. The torrent of rippling piano flourishes he unleashed between hanging orchestral chords that opened the first movement was smooth as silk. The lengthy orchestral response – staccato chord progressions that led to a discourse lasting over three minutes – was more regal and lyrical than most interpretations I’d heard. Slightly flippant at times, Mr Thibaudet lagged behind the orchestra in majesty and grandiloquence.

Both soloist and orchestra tiptoed their way through the sustained somnambulance of the Adagio second movement, both exerting sustained control and tranquility. In the jolly rondo finale, Mr Thibaudet appeared a little carried away, at times getting ahead of himself and the orchestra. In the relentless pursuit of speed, he underplayed the light-heartedness of the movement – a rarity in Beethoven – and even got his fingers in a twist at one stage.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, is as much a cornucopia of ethnic American folk material as it is a hodge-podge of traditional Bohemian themes. Although inspiration for the work might have come variously from his student Harry Burleigh and Longfellow’s tale about Hiawatha, his visit to the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa seemed to have given him impetus to finish the work. It could well be the musical equivalent of Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts From Abroad.

From the way he handled the brooding Adagio in the first movement and the anxious longing of the call on horns, it was clear that Maestro van Zweden fully grasped the essence of Dvořák’s sentiments. A carefully nurtured variety of rhythms – at times lunging and at other times bouncy – underpinned painstakingly manicured tonal nuances. The Largo, featuring Kwan Sheung-fung on cor anglais in the famous lilting theme, was darker than I had expected. It was in the brief duet between solo violin and cello that I noticed newly appointed concertmaster Jing Wang, who worked beautifully with principal cello Richard Bamping. It was indeed a heavy-hearted pining for home.

The elegant dance that started the Scherzo turned into a whirring frenzy, with intrusive brass joining in the fray, and episodes of bucolic serenity on woodwinds sprinkled here and there. The final movement began with a nervous shiver on strings and forceful thrusts on brass, leading to a methodical revision of thematic material from previous movements. The inexorable pace kept the momentum going, even in passages of tender lyricism.

Worthy of mention are other solo players who added superb colour to the performance – the oboe and flute in the first movement, the clarinet in the third, and the horns throughout.

In the year for which he has been music director, Jaap van Zweden has refined the tone of the Hong Kong Phil, and brought it up at least one notch in the richness of its sound. The start to its 40th season as a fully professional orchestra on Friday was very auspicious.