Since the year 2000, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta has been part of the annual Le French May Arts Festival, an annual series of cultural events during May and June with connections to France.  The 150th anniversary of the birth of Nielsen and Sibelius, two of the composers featured in the orchestra’s programme on Saturday night, made the orchestra’s contribution to the Festival this year ever more significant.

© Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Opening the concert, with Music Director Yip Wing-Sie on the podium, was Ravel’s Pavane por un Infante Défunte, one of his best known works aside from Boléro. The composer is said to have chosen the intriguing title of the work because he liked the sound, and dedicated it not to a dead princess, but a living one – Princesse de Polignac – whose salon the composer attended. Quite apart from the fact that the orchestra had difficulty starting together, there was never a sense that the different orchestral colours came together to paint what could have been a fascinating picture.  The horn held its own as the pivot around which a good part of the work revolved, but the woodwinds, rather than augmenting the palette, sounded like daubs of colour randomly added.  The emblematic “French” lushness in the strings was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t quite a “dead pavane for a princess”, as Ravel once described a performance, but it certainly wasn’t the graceful and refined tribute to a patroness the composer would have intended.

Riding on the success of the Quintet, Op.43 he wrote for members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, tailoring the parts to the character of the players, Nielsen had plans to add a concerto for each of the soloists.  He managed only two in his ailing health, and the one for clarinet turned out to be his last orchestral work, which is marked by ostensible tension, if not conflict, between the soloist and orchestra and between two keys vying for dominance.  Soloist Paul Meyer’s handling of the instrument was smooth and refined, coaxing out of it a gentle and soothing tone while navigating the roller-coaster transitions from high to low register.  In the Allegretto Un Poco first section of the work, the over-zealous orchestra practically drowned the soloist, who struggled to come up for air at times.  Soloist and orchestra then played hide and seek, never quite together with each other in proper dialogue.  As if the cadenza in the first part of the work was not enough, the solo part had plenty of opportunity to flex its muscles in the slow section, in which Paul Meyer was able to showcase his finesse.  The sense of detachment subsided in the final Allegro Vivace, with all the elements coming together in sharper contrast, not least with the help of timely and poignant interjections by the snare drum.  For fleeting moments, there was hopeful optimism that the clarinet would find ways of winning over the orchestra, only to slowly decline into a hushed ending of resignation.

Paul Meyer returned after the intermission in Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie, an examination piece he wrote for clarinettists in the Paris Conservatoire and subsequently orchestrated.  As a moody study of the capabilities of the instrument, its demands are more in subtlety than in virtuosity.  Although Mr Meyer’s performance was far too competent to be “nondescript” – Debussy’s assessment of all but one of the eleven students he observed in 1910 – it was less than inspiring in capturing the work’s nuances.  The orchestra came together nicely to produce the lush tone that was missing in the Ravel Pavane earlier in the evening, rich in lyricism and carefree in languor.

The final work of the evening, Sibelius’ Symphony No 6, Op 104, began quietly enough, but as it progressed a moving sense of rustic freshness emerged.  Yip Wing-sie drove the orchestra with such rhythmic vitality that the floor quivered.  As coolness broadened into luxuriance, a world of wonder opened.  The rest of the work flowed effortlessly, like water over a duck’s back, but with a good measure of vigour where necessary, as in the Allegro Assai final movement, which left us looking for more as the strings and timpani drew it to a subdued close.