When Maestro Long Yu is in command, there’s bound to be variety, energy and drama.  He didn’t disappoint on Friday, leading the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as Principal Guest Conductor in a programme of works spanning two and a half centuries which the respective composers all finished in their 30s.

Long Yu © Christine Bush (CAMI Music LLC)
Long Yu
© Christine Bush (CAMI Music LLC)
Heavy indeed was his responsibility in conducting the world première of Seven Nights, a new commission by Du Wei in the orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence programme. Unlike some of her other works in recent years, Seven Nights is scored exclusively for Western orchestral instruments. In the programme notes, the composer says that she was reading a book by Jorge Luis Borges, whose words “The nightmare may be the fable of the night” are particularly close to her heart. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand the ethereal ambience that pervades the first half of the work.

The opening solo flute, à la Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, joins clarinet, oboe and other woodwinds in a dreamy flurry interrupted momentarily by sweeping swooshes of shearing strings. Low strings lay the foundation for a frightening sound wall of quick, pulsating rhythms, sprinkled with muted trumpet calls. As the full orchestra unleashes its power with the support of thumping drums, the mutes come off the trumpets to sharpen their bite. The snare drum and low brass join in the fray to bring the dream to a crashing close. If Du Wei’s claim that “composition has become the best form of therapy” is true, Seven Nights’ build-up from a single instrument into a multi-layered sonic conflagration is powerful enough to chase away any demon. Accessible and intuitive, it’s a welcome addition to the repertoire from a promising artist still in her thirties.

Likely to have been written when Haydn was at most in his early thirties, the Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major was lost to the world for some two centuries until its discovery in 1961. It’s more listener-friendly than anything by Mozart – almost ingratiatingly endearing. Clearly conscious of the need to capture the dignified elegance of the first movement, the orchestra dialled down its volume by half compared with the roaring conclusion of Seven Nights, but perhaps a little too much, I thought, even though Haydn probably composed it with a small ensemble in mind. As soloist Jian Wang entered after the genteel introduction, I realised that the subdued approach might also be an attempt not to overwhelm his under-powered projection. Although musically well connected to the core of the work, his fingering did not adequately articulate the finer nuances of Haydn’s scoring in the Moderato first movement.

The peaceful and relaxed Adagio second movement is almost good enough to be a lullaby. Jian Wang came to his own here, with his sensitive touch and warm, expressive tone delivering the essence of quiet contentment. The Allegro molto third movement is an agile hopscotch conclusion to a delightful work. Wang tackled the rapid-fire fingering at extreme ends of the cello’s range with verve, but some passages remained blurry.

The ominous murmur of the lowest note on the organ greeted our return after the intermission, as the three-note “World Riddle Theme” on the trumpet launched a gripping account of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Lying in store beyond this theme, popularised by Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, is an orchestral kaleidoscope depicting, in Strauss’ own words, “the development of the human race”. Immediately following the widely recognised introduction, pizzicato strings and a solo violin painted a bright and hopeful picture in “Of Those in Backwaters” with a dash of superb lyricism. The brass had a field day of glory in wild abandon in “Of Joys and Passion”, while “The Song of the Grave” passed without much attention. A sense of panic emerged among scurrying trombones, cellos and basses in “The Convalescent”, with the organ adding emphatic blows midway. An extended “Dance Song” seemed to be a last swing of lilting joy among solo violin, strings and woodwinds, before all went quiet after a low bell struck what sounded like the death knell to usher in “Song of the Night Wanderer”. Man’s journey from the cradle to the grave was complete. Long Yu’s treatment was exhilarating, tender, sentimental and expansive, befitting the variety of moods the composer wished to convey, leaving no stone unturned.