To mark the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta was invited to kick-start the Koerner Hall’s chamber music series as part of their debut tour in North American. Despite competing concerts held downtown that very same evening, those who supported the HKS were rewarded by their fine performances.

Loo Sze-wang with Yip Wing-sie and Hong Kong Sinfonietta © HK Sinfonietta Ltd
Loo Sze-wang with Yip Wing-sie and Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd

Toronto is the third of five stops in the HKS’s North American tour, which also includes Vancouver, Calgary, New York and Montreal. The programme opened with Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1, written in 1917. Prokofiev was encouraged by his conducting professor Nikolai Tcherepnin to compose a symphony “in the classical style but to incorporate something modern into it.” The composition, nicknamed “Classical”, features old writing styles in the first and second movements, a gavotte in the third movement, and highly original themes in the finale. In selecting this symphony to open the evening, Yip strived to display the HKS’s virtuosity in two aspects: first, by pushing the tempi of the outer movements to exciting extremes; second, by contrasting the quirky humour in the opening movement with the more soulful introspection in the second movement. Yip and the HKS achieved these only with moderate success. The tempo of the final movement did not seem entirely “vivace”, while one would have yearned for a richer orchestral texture in the second movement, especially from the body of strings, to outline the elegance of the music writing. Together, the HKS delivered a polish reading but in exchange of a teasing character to the symphony.

’Twas the Thawing Wind, for sheng and orchestra, is a newly commissioned work composed by Chan Hing-yan (b.1963). The sheng is a traditional Chinese bamboo instrument whose name is translated as a “pipe organ”. The quality of the sheng sound is generally clear and metallic, and perhaps most closely resembling the shawm-like quality of the Western oboe. Consisting of three titled movements, the piece draws on heavy wind instrumentation to mimic effects of the wind. Playing on the sheng was artist associate of the HKS Loo Sze-wang, whose embrasure technique was conducive in bringing clarity and rhythmic variation to the sheng. During the 20 minutes, one heard the sheng in interactive dialogues with the winds, a duet of percussion and bassoon, and a solo violin passage in the second movement. The most impressive demonstrations from Mr. Loo were heard in the cadenzas; a kaleidoscope of sonorities that was clear and vibrant in the upper register, soft and mellow in the middle register, deep and full-bodied in the low extremes. To echo the audience’s enthusiasm, Mr. Loo returned solo on stage to bring a cleverly virtuosic piece as an encore.

After intermission, the program switched to two Russian treasures of the last century. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite is a sequence of eight movements including forms such as the serenade, the tarantella, and the gavotte. Here, Maestra Yip and the HKS brought liveliness and precision in their performance, which exceeded their rendition of the Prokofiev. By sitting each of the principal string players up-front and separated from the rest of their section players, theycreated a unique sphere of acoustics, sounding like a string quartet embedded within a chamber orchestra. Special reference goes to HKS’s principal bass Masami Nagai and principal trombone Jonathan Watkins for delivering a whimsical exchange of solos in the Vivo section.

Ending the evening was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2, a work composed in 1935 just before Prokofiev returned to Russia after a self-imposed exile. Compared to the first concerto, the second is an example of Prokofiev’s transition to “new simplicity” – a writing style in which Prokofiev placed greater emphasis on melodies and recurrence of thematic motifs over dissonant-rich writing. The Beijing-trained violinist Tianwa Yang gave a bustled performance from start to finish. She not only had the techniques to conquer the delicate writing of Prokofiev, but one could not fail to be amazed by the very bite of her bowing into the strings in the fiercest sections of the first and third movements. Yang was not only adept in her techniques, but her style was a natural fit in the demanding lyricism of the second movement. Here, she played with convincing fluidity, bringing perennial beauty into a setting of nostalgia. Everyone in the audience was clearly insatiable for Ms. Yang’s playing and demanded more. The violinist returned on stage aptly to give yet another of her trump cards, with Ysaÿe’s fiendishly difficult Sonata no. 3 for solo violin.

Under Maestra Yip, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta continues to grow artistically in a subtle but meaningful way. At times, their playing appeared didactic and polished, but on other occasions, their playing was genuinely engaging. Yip and the HKS had made a welcoming mark for their Toronto debut; let’s hope their return will even be better.

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