As the sophistication of classical music audiences increases, Arts organizations in Hong Kong are exploring provocative programs to draw audiences and retain loyal patrons. With the Hong Kong Philharmonic transitioning into a new period of growth, it is increasing its ability to attract first-class musicians to grace the concert stage of the Cultural Center and deliver music-making at new heights. On Friday, the HK Phil presented two musical collaborators in famous French and Russian repertoire.

Nikolai Lugansky, Charles Dutoit and the Hong Kong Philharmonic © Cheung Wai Lok
Nikolai Lugansky, Charles Dutoit and the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Cheung Wai Lok

At the age 81, Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit made his debut with the HK Phil a decade ago in the works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Ravel. Renowned especially for his readings of French and Russian repertory, Dutoit opened tonight’s concert with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, derived from themes from his opera Benvenuto Cellini. Conducting with open arms and full-body gestures, he directed the opening Saltarello with elegance and led the smooth transition of the beautiful cor anglais solo. The overture is one of the more challenging orchestral oeuvres requiring the experience of a disciplined conductor to navigate its inherent complexities. On one hand, Dutoit commanded precision from his musicians, even at the peak of its fanfare motifs characterised by the powerful trumpets, trombones and horns. In the slower and nostalgic sections, the Maestro manoeuvred the strings and woodwinds to deliver a meditative spell despite Berlioz’s difficult notation with off-beat entrances.

Following this orchestral warm-up and rearrangements on stage, the audiences welcomed the guest soloist, the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky who was making his orchestral debut in Hong Kong in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor. Despite some minor blemishes – one at the very ending of the first movement where the pianist out-ran the orchestra to the finish line, then an unexpected slip of fingers during the solo passage in the second movement – Lugansky gave by far one of the finest and most attractive performances of “Rach 3” local audiences have heard in recent years. In the first movement, he accompanied the beautiful melodic lines of the bassoon and subsequently those of the strings and horn with a lyrical tone palette and cantabile playing that few can achieve. Lugansky’s technical command was equally top-rated; first, his clean running passages and flawless double octaves, and second, his ability to vocalize the middle lines of the cadenza while maintaining the harmonic tensions of the other lines added to the drama and suspense. The third movement was a mix of raw energy and electricity embellished by Lugansky’s choice of ornaments. These were proportionally echoed by the HK Phil under Dutoit’s mindful direction. After his symphonic triumph, Lugansky returns with a short encore from the last of Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Op.32.

Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale opened the second half of the concert, which traces back to episodes from his opera The Nightingale. Dutoit drew out the best from his musicians, giving appropriate spaciousness to spotlight the beautiful instrumental solos from the violin, trumpet, clarinet and flute. Then, in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé Suite no. 2, Dutoit was effective to massage the opening string sections like water nymphs emerging from waves, no less a tribute to Ravel’s creative and imaginative powers as an orchestrator and a composer. Toward the final section, Dutoit exerted his full energy to command all orchestral sections, including the percussion, to draw the music and this evening to its exciting close.