Whether you agree with him or not, you can’t fault Maestro Jaap van Zweden for not nailing his colours to the mast. His artistic vision for the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday was loud and clear in the première of Conrad Tao’s new commission and Mahler’s legendary Symphony no. 6 in A minor – and nothing short of exhilarating.

When he wrote the last commission for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, based on the Chinese mythological figure Pángǔ, Conrad Tao was only 18 years old. His latest commission is much more down-to-earth and closer to home, but it wasn’t until I read the Chinese translation of swallow harbor did I realise the “swallow” in the title was a verb and not a noun. A depiction of Hong Kong, with all its “jagged skyline” and “a heterogeneous mix of architectural styles”, as Tao wrote in his own programme notes, swallow harbor does indeed capture the something that is “pulsating and organic at the heart of this seemingly impossible city”. A single note on harp launched the tuba in a ponderous introduction to some frenetic string glissandos. More episodic tremolandos on strings, broken up by thumps on bass drums, reached fever pitch as the sounds dissolved into a twisted jelly – “at a precarious place orbiting dazzling, grotesque, and true”, as Tao put it himself. A simulation of slithering verve and nervous energy, the sound Conrad Tao created was as accurate a portrait of this city of sleepless contrasts as you could get.

Few works in the repertoire have spawned a larger volume of contentious scholarship and artistic debate than Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. What should be the order of the inner movements – Andante first and Scherzo second, or the other way round – and how many hammer strikes should there be – two or three? Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic seemed to sail right past these questions in being clear, coherent and consistent about their intentions. It boiled down to a masterful grip on the details and meticulous attention to the structure of the work; and a triumph of passionate artistic vision over academic abstraction. It was fascinating to witness how van Zweden unflinchingly knew where to take each phrase, how instruments fitted together, and how the sum of the parts built a meaningful whole. For the churlish few, the sacrifice might have been spontaneity, but for me the risk of chaos would have been worse.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

In the Allegro energico opening movement, van Zweden was faithful to the tempo marking. The march rhythm was persistent and emphatic, but not trenchant. The “Alma” theme was luscious and mellifluous, imbued with a tinge of blitheness in spirit. The episode of bucolic magnificence was delightful, replete with tickly interjections – for some reason the celesta kept coming back to haunt me. If this was setting up what life might be about, it was less menacing and daunting than other interpretations I’d heard.

The ensuing Scherzo sounded almost like a continuation of the Allegro, except a little faster in triple rather than quadruple time. The touch was light and playful, until, that is, things started degenerating into nightmarish contortions. If Alma Mahler was right about this depicting children’s games, then it captured perfectly the sinking feeling of losing control as the children began to enjoy themselves too much. How the contrabassoon had the last word was quite troubling.

Although van Zweden was consistent in his pacing, the Andante was a little too quick for me. It glossed over the wistful longing for an indeterminate, perhaps imaginary and unattainable, state of idyllic tranquillity. It was as if he was keen to get on with life, unwilling to stop a while to smell the roses. The horns managed to pin down and hold in place what would otherwise be a mere fleeting moment of respite from the turmoil. In the end, though, the weeping strings starkly reminded us this was not to last – the disquieting anxiety was palpable.

The colossal finale, a hodgepodge regurgitation of material from earlier movements with a twist, began in a way similar to how the Andante ended, nervous and apprehensive. Moments of soaring glory were, as expected, extinguished by intrusive percussion. The hammer put paid to the incessant struggle between hope and despair although, as I heard it, despair was not the undisputed winner. The only triumph in the slide to the crashing end was how van Zweden held this monstrosity together without losing his way. It was almost as if he was telling Alma Mahler that the symphony couldn’t be one of autobiographical clairvoyance – Mahler might have expected disaster, but he wouldn’t have hoped for it.