Friday’s programme had a clear Slavic flavour to it – two works by Dvořák bookending one by Janáček, both of whom had been born within 400 kilometres of each other – with China’s guru on Western music, Long Yu, conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in collaboration with violinist Gil Shaham.

Long Yu
© Askonas Holt

With no shortage of melodies, quotations of national and ethnic origin, and sometimes over-developed thematic material, Dvořák’s compositions stand out among those of his contemporaries. His Violin Concerto in A minor never gave me the impression of being over-wrought, but I did leave the hall humming the ethnic dance tune with a bouncy rhythm from the last movement.

Shaham displayed a light touch imbued with eloquence; his manner was engaging and oozing with desire to communicate. He clearly made an effort to immerse himself into the performance. At one point, he stood so close to Long Yu that he could well have taken an accidental blow to the cheek or slap in the face as the conductor gestured to emphasise a point.

He was careful to resist the temptation to go overboard in the emotionally charged Allegro first movement. Shaham's tone was round and soothing, and not overly effusive. I had initial concern about his modesty in the solo entry, but he dispelled it by projecting throughout without leaving the orchestra in the dust. His display of virtuosic intensity never made us feel he was breathing fire. Instead of wallowing in treacle, the lyrical parts were gently floating on the surface of a rippling lake.

The second movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo, sounded a little faster than I expected and was hardly distinguishable from the first even in the absence of a break. Shaham’s performance could well have mesmerised us into oblivion to the change of pace. The Finale, with strong suggestions of dances from Dvořák’s childhood, was ebullient, orchestra and soloist sharing a strong sense of fun.

I wonder how much Shaham’s two-year-old violin, made by Andranik Gaybaryan, helped in his performance, but his claim about its ability to “project a clear, rich tone… on a sweltering summer day in front of a symphony orchestra” certainly passed the test, the temperature outside the hall being probably above 32 degrees Celsius and humidity over 80%. This was particularly evident in the encore of a movement from Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major.

Earlier in the evening, the orchestra, replete with its armoury of brass instruments absent in the Violin Concerto, had opened with Dvořák’s Othello overture. Long Yu’s account of this orchestral work of yearning, pathos, regret and tragedy was gripping, but not overly stretched with tension. The lyrical passages swayed with suave undulation; the blazing brass added much impetus to the marching rhythm; and the thumping timpani kept up the pace. The resonant low strings, with help from crashing cymbals, helped bring the grave dénouement to a close.

When it comes to wearing his cultural heart on his sleeve, Janáček gives Dvořák a good run for his money. His Taras Bulba is full of nostalgic references to Slavic culture. The three movements depict deaths in the family of the Ukrainian Cossack immortalised in Gogol’s novella, in their struggle against the Poles. In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Bulba’s son Andrij had fallen in love with a Polish girl, and was executed for it. Solo violin soon duplicated the lugubrious and lilting cor anglais opening, supported by bells and organ. Frenzied and sharp strings joined in the fray, with the brass interjecting intrusively, as the piccolo added piquancy to the tragedy. Solo violin and oboe, however, had the last word. The second movement, Death of Ostap, consists mainly of six notes and their riposte repeated by different combinations of instruments. There was a palpable sense of eerie suspense, but the shrieking clarinet soon shook the work out of its repetitive torpor. Bulba’s death in the last movement was the most heroic and triumphant of them all, well documented by nervous woodwinds, a brass fanfare, a lone horn, and extended lamentation on strings in a soaring melody. The long-drawn-out conclusion with bells and timpani effectively suggested the grandeur and prophecy of Bulba’s exit.

The orchestra under Long Yu clearly demonstrated good ability to traverse the cultural divide, handling ethnic material from afar with fluency and ease.