It is bold for an Asian orchestra to tackle a programme of works with a strong and vibrant ethnic character. We got far more than we bargained for in the concert titled “Bravo! Piazzolla” by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Friday, not only in terms of the generous encores but more so of the quality of performance. Under the baton of visiting conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor, the orchestra delivered a punchy sound of fire from the guts. Moments of lyrical languor augmented the racy stream of clear texture, vibrant colour, and throbbing pace.

© Hyou Vielz
© Hyou Vielz

Opening the programme was La noche de los Mayas by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who lived a tragic life between 1899 and 1940 beset by unbridled idealism. Although he is considered to be an important figure in Mexican music, his output was curtailed by his multiple activities as conductor, teacher and political activist. Revueltas composed La noche de los Mayas (The Night of the Mayas) as the score for the movie of the same name. Conductor José Ives Limantour edited parts of the score to produce a symphonic suite he premièred with the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra in 1961. Featured in the Hong Kong Philharmonic programme was this condensed version consisting of two movements.

The angst-ridden percussion in the first movement soon gave way to restrained lyricism on strings and winds, hinting at mild repression, followed by an elegant dance melody that led to a beautiful lament on cellos. Lilting flute solos and rhythmic vibrancy in fast passages on the xylophone built to a breakneck crescendo in conclusion. The principal cellist, Richard Bamping, smiled broadly throughout, swinging his head to the rhythm, obviously enjoying himself.

The centerpieces of the evening were The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Concerto for Bandonéon by Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla. A virtuoso bandonéon player, Piazzolla spent his early years with orchestras in tango clubs. It was during his tutelage with the French teacher Nadia Boulanger that he began to find his own voice in composition based on the tango, abandoning his early work that borrowed from Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel. “And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two weeks,” he wrote in his memoir.

Piazzolla began “Summer” of The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires in 1965, and completed the rest of the work in 1970, scoring it for bandonéon, violin, electric guitar, piano and string bass. Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov arranged it for violin and string orchestra. As violinist Karen Gomyo launched into the opening bars of “Summer”, for a very brief moment I thought jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli had come alive. She slid her fingers deftly up and down the strings in a slur, the musical equivalent of melting ice, and played the fleeting references to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with vehemence. Principal cellist Richard Bamping came to his own in the mournful solo at the start of “Autumn”, with soloist Gomyo making jagged whipping sounds in forceful pizzicatos and bowing between the bridge and the tailpiece of the violin.

“Winter” began with a sojourn on the low strings, making way for an animated imitation of Vivaldi and hypnotic sobbing by the solo violin. A bouncy fugue involving violins and violas opened “Spring”, the last movement of the suite. As the slow section of the movement went through a few jazzy iterations, soloist Gomyo brought the movement to a close with Vivaldi-like variations rapidly alternating between fast and slow paces.

The sound of a bandonéon can be best described as a harmonica with lungs. In the hands of the towering figure of Carel Kraayenhof, it was an instrument of versatile sonority. With a nod to each other, conductor Ben-Dor and soloist Kraayenhof lunged into the animated introduction of Piazzolla’s Concerto for Bandonéon, which the Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires commissioned in 1979. Following a bandonéon solo that sounded like a piece from cabaret, the movement ended with a romantic serenade.

The middle slow movement opened with the soloist playing a long-winded sigh on the
bandonéon, soon forming a quartet with violin, harp and cello. After the full orchestra paraded the main theme, the movement settled again on a wistful melody on the solo bandonéon.

The final movement, with the hallmark of a scherzo, began with syncopated rhythms. Basing part of the movement on an impish tango he had written for the soundtrack to the film Con alma y vida, Piazzolla apparently wondered how to end the work and decided to adopt a “weighty” conclusion, going out with a bang. No wonder his publisher Aldo Pagani gave it the nickname “Aconcagua”, the name of South America’s highest peak, to signify its standing as the pinnacle of Piazzolla’s oeuvre.

The evening closed with the Estancia (The Ranch) suite, Op.8 by Piazzolla’s compatriot and teacher Alberto Ginastera. Derived from a ballet commissioned by New York’s Ballet Caravan, which collapsed before it could perform the work, Estancia is a collection of dances inspired by Argentina’s rural landscape.

“Los Trabajadores Agrícolas” (The Land Workers) started with brash assertions on brass with the woodwinds belting out a jagged rhythm in a subdued but brooding tone as the movement continued. “Danza del Trigo” (Wheat Dance) was a slow drawl on the flute and horns. As the full strings burst into song, a solo violin gradually brought the temperature down.

In “La Doma” (Rodeo), roaring timpani and a pitter-pattering xylophone in staccato made clear references to the Rodeo suite of Aaron Copland, who tutored Ginastera briefly in Tanglewood in the 1940s.

“Idilio Crepuscular” (Twilight Idyll) opened on strings only in a melody that suggested the rolling expanse of Argentina’s pastoral landscape. The “Danza final, Malambo” (Final Dance, Malambo) was a contest of will between wind and brass on one side and strings on the other, simulating one between gauchos on the ranch. Explosive percussions brought the dance to a decisive close, and the house down.

Those who didn’t make it to the Cultural Centre for Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concert on Friday missed an evening of emotionally charged exhilaration sprinkled with romantic lyricism. Bravo! Piazzolla.