It’s not often that Beethoven gets second billing in a concert, but Jaap van Zweden’s inaugural programme as Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday gave this impression. Two student compositions with strong Chinese heritage stole the limelight this evening, which was also the orchestra’s celebration of China’s National Day on 1 October.

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

To mark his debut, van Zweden commissioned a new work by American-Chinese violinist, pianist and Columbia University student Conrad Tao. The myth of Pángǔ is the secular equivalent in Chinese mythology of the story of Genesis. After brewing in an egg for 18,000 years, the forces of the universe converged into Pángǔ, a hairy giant who broke out of the egg and built the world by pushing the sky upwards and stretching the earth. As he expired after another 18,000 years, so the myth goes, his breath became the wind; his voice the thunder; his right eye the sun; and his left eye the moon.

In Conrad Tao’s own programme notes, Pángǔ “aims to capture the weight of the earth and heaven separating, and the thrilling world left behind as Pángǔ ends his journey”. The composition stays pretty much to script. Sustained alternating notes on woodwinds are soon joined by a sharp, darting motif on strings. A pulsating rhythmic thrust provides a sense of continuous motion, interrupted briefly in moments of tension by the brass and percussion. Pángǔ is a work of expansive dimensions. The orchestra captured the finely chiselled balance of various instruments, bringing them together to realise the work’s breadth of vision.

The Butterfly Lovers, a violin concerto, was the response of Shanghai Conservatory of Music students Chen Gang and He Zhanhao to a commission for the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. At the height of the new regime’s emphasis on personal sacrifice in favour of communal well-being, Communist Party officials would have expected a work of revolutionary zeal, but received instead one about unfulfilled love and the hope of transformation in death. What caught their attention was perhaps the work’s underlying rejection of feudal values and yearning for freedom.

Zhu Yingtai, who disguises herself as a man in order to attend school, spends three years studying with Liang Shanbo and secretly falls in love with him. By the time Liang discovers Zhu’s true identity and reciprocates, Zhu’s father has already promised her hand to someone else. Liang pines away and dies. As Zhu leaps into Liang’s grave on the day of her wedding, the two unite in death and transform into butterflies.

The single-movement concerto conforms broadly to sonata form – the exposition lays out the friendship between the lovers; the development describes Zhu’s resistance to arranged marriage and her last tryst with Liang; and the recapitulation sees them united in death, transformed into butterflies. Despite structural affinity with Western classical music, the concerto’s thematic material and rhythmic underpinning are unmistakably Chinese, often derived from a Yueju opera in Zhejiang province featuring the same story.

Soloist Ning Feng, a graduate of music colleges in China and the West, beautifully captured the cross-cultural nuances of the concerto. His silky tone brought out the best in the lyricism of the lilting lover’s theme in a sensitive rendering that never degenerated into mawkishness; and his fluidity made the lovers’ exploits all the more playful. Despite occasionally drowning the soloist, the orchestra’s firm grip on rhythm added colour to the lovers’ struggle with paternal dominance and the inexorable march towards their tragic destiny.

The second half of the evening returned to more traditional Western fare with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A. Described variously by fellow composers as a product of someone “quite ripe for the madhouse” (Carl Maria von Weber) or “the apotheosis of the dance” (Richard Wagner), the work oozes energy and vitality. Van Zweden’s relentless drive, especially in the final movement, appeared to sweep the entire orchestra off its feet and left it quite breathless. I might have preferred a little more subtlety in the famous Allegretto second movement, and dynamic contrast in the Presto third movement, but that would be like wanting to see more details on the wings of the planes after watching an aerobatic display by RAF jet fighters.

It has been suggested that under Jaap van Zweden’s stewardship, the Hong Kong Philharmonic could become the “Berlin Philharmonic of Asia”. By demonstrating a strong affinity with Chinese culture, he has found a clear path towards distinguishing the orchestra from many of its counterparts in other parts of the world.

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