It’s hard to accuse Ottorino Respighi of doing things by half measures. With a reputation built on a trilogy of symphonic poems about Rome and a handful of smaller scale works, he throws everything but the kitchen sink at them, and most of it sticks. He himself remarked after finishing Roman Festivals, the last instalment of the three: “Within the present constitution of the orchestra it is impossible to achieve more, and I do not think I shall write any more scores of this kind.”

Xian Zhang © Nora Roitberg
Xian Zhang
© Nora Roitberg

Guest conductor Xian Zhang, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday, abounded with energy and élan in Roman Festivals, but missed opportunities to exploit dynamic contrasts while leaving room for individual instruments to shine. The opening brass fanfare that parades the animals in the “Circuses” first section of the work was somewhat restrained, and didn’t overwhelm us as the first wave of a roaring tide would. The strings were not nearly neurotic enough, nor were the vrooming low strings that followed severe and threatening.

For most of the early parts of the second section, “The Jubilee”, the woodwinds and strings held sway to depict the plight of pilgrims plodding wearily. The crescendo that signalled the sight of the holy city was bright and cheery, slowly descending into quietude. Horns announced the start of “October Festival”, full of joy, laughter and activity. The strings didn’t quite let it all hang out, but the horn, clarinet, flute and mandolin all had their moments. “The Epiphany” is the hardest section to get right, and at times Ms Zhang seemed to have lost grip of the rhythmic pulse. The orchestra glossed over glimpses of satire among the jumble of frenetic energy, much as the rise to the climax was exhilarating.

As the last of Olivier Messiaen’s students, Qigang Chen, by his own admission, has had his music variously described as melancholic, sentimental and refined. Nevertheless, he is not easy to typecast, as the theme song he wrote for the 2008 Beijing Olympics showed. In fulfilling a joint commission by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, he yet again waded into uncharted territory.

Literally translated, the title of Luan Tan, which received its world première on Saturday, comes close to “chaotic playing”. It turned out to be anything but chaotic. For a couple of minutes, a temple block, starting almost inaudibly, established and repeated a rhythmic pattern that would emerge again and again to hold the work together. This would slowly build up, layer upon layer of orchestral colour, into a full palette. Substitute the temple block with a snare drum, and it’s not difficult to imagine Bolero almost a century ago sharing a similar concept. The orchestra handled the build-up from near silence to the scintillating exposé well, cleaving the texture clearly while carefully maintaining the rhythmic thrust.

Amidst recent controversial events surrounding Ukraine and Russia, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor, Op.17 is a timely reminder that Ukrainians claiming historical connections with Russia may have a point. On account of the Ukrainian folk melodies Tchaikovsky borrowed for the first and last movements, Russian critic Nikolay Kashkin give it the nickname “Little Russian”. The composer apparently approved – after all, Ukraine at that time was often described as Little Russia.

The work begins with a passage on horns based on the Ukrainian folk melody Down by the Mother Volga. The bassoon and pizzicato strings take over the gentle lament soon, developing it into a mini-climax, when shortly afterwards new and more lyrical themes follow. The throbbing five-note phrase of the opening returns again and again in different guises, making the movement sound a little like a broken record. Despite earnest attempts, Ms Zhang wasn’t able to lead the orchestra beyond a functional rendering of the score. The second movement, based on a wedding march from the abandoned opera Undine, could have easily come alive with a little more spring in its step, but was instead plodding and peripatetic.

By contrast, the third movement displayed visceral flashes of sharp wit with the help of dashing woodwinds and strings. Emphatic declarations on timpani launched the finale to introduce a set of variations on the Ukrainian song The Crane. The initial bombast gave way to a light and airy sojourn on strings which alternated with crashing brass outbursts. The orchestra finally came to its own and gave the crashing crescendo all it had to bring the work to a rousing close.

***11