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HKPO’s New season with Its New Musical Director

Lee Ou-fan

I have just received a new brochure for Hong Kong Philhoarmic’s new 2012/13 season with its new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden (with a new Buddhist-sounding Chinese name: 梵志登). It offers a varied and quite exciting program.

The real star to watch and hear is of course Zweden himself. I heard him on at least two occasions and was quite impressed by his methodical and hard-driving style—no mannerisms, no nonsense. I also heard from a colleague who attended his rehearsals that like his predecessor Edo De Waart, he is a drill-master and even more demanding. So far so good! The worst thing that might happen to an orchestra is to play its concerts like weekly routine. The paying audience demands excitement and a kinetic sense of sharing with the musicians on stage.

The new season features Jaap only in five programs. The one to hear, for me at least, is certainly Brahms’ s German Requiem, a familiar piece but rarely heard in Hong Kong. This time, the chorus no longer comes from Shanghai or Beijing but Australia--the Western Australian Symphony Chorus. The participation of this choral group from “down under” begs the issue of Hong Kong’s own lack of a professional chorus, despite the existence of quite a number of amateur groups. This is one of Edo’s regrets, as he repeated many times to me. Jaap’s inaugural concert, purposefully scheduled to coincide with the National Day celebration, features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which should be perfect for his temperament and style. But I am disappointed by the perpetual inclusion of the “Butterfly Lovers” violin concerto, as if the entire span of the People’s Republic has not produced another significant work! Of course I will not miss Jap’s Mahler 1. He is reputed to be an impressive Mahler conductor, but I wish he would schedule more Bruckner, with whom he is reputed to be equally at home.

I am rather taken by the new series of short musical happenings called “Showtime at 9PM!” In one of them, “you are invited to vote for your best-loved repertoire and let Jaap know”. Since I may not be able to attend this event next May, may I use my privilege as a critic and suggest the following wish-list:

1. Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

2. Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

3. Messaiaen: Turangalila-Symphonie.

4. Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky Cantata

5. Debussy: La Martyre de Saint Sebastien

6. Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe (complete ballet)

7. Britten: War Requiem

All of them require choral participation, which goes to show how crucial a symphony chorus is to an orchestra’s repertoire. I applaud this move. It’s about time!

To celebrate Jaap’s inaugural season, a number of other stars are invited, among whom are Li Yundi, Lang Lang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Nicola Benedetti, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The first three are well known to Hong Kong audiences, but the new star to watch is Benedetti, whose violin sound reportedly has captivated a few British composers. However, I would go for Ashkenazy’s Sibelius Symphony No. 5, of which he is an old hand.

A number of new or no so well known conductors are also invited. The one I am eager to hear is the Polish veteran Antoni Wit, of whom I only knew through his recordings. Another well established conductor is Vassily Sinaisky, whose all-Russian program bears watching.

For the coming season, the participation of Perry So, the orchestra’s associate conductor, is reduced to one concert—an interesting one, all Rachmaninoff—although I worry how long Hong Kong can keep this rising star who is making headlines in Copenhagen and Northern Spain. I just heard his debut recording conducting the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the young violinist Alexander Gilman playing three concertos: Barber, Korngold, and Waxman (Carmen Fantasy), with John Williams’s “Theme of Schindler’s List” as a bonus. For my ears, the rendition of the Korngold is superb, whereas the Schindler Theme must be one of the slowest ever recorded!

I always have a soft spot for young musicians, especially talented ones who are not so well known. Without media hype, the experience of first hearing gives me the excitement of real discovery. Among the young violinists is the Japanese-American Karen Gomyo. I heard her play Piazzolla’s Four Seasons last year and was most pleasantly surprised by her exhilarating rendition of Piazzolla’s tango rhythms; the piece sounded fresh and alluring, more exciting than in Gidon Kremer’s recording. She will be playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto, though I wish she would do a new piece by a contemporary composer.

Designing a whole season’s programs is not easy, as it is hard to please different people with different tastes. Still, I do believe that the central mission of a city’s flagship orchestra is to raise the level of both musical performance and the audience’s appreciation of good music. Entertainment can play a lesser role, for we can always find enough of that elsewhere. A live performance of good music is a form of human communication that can lift our spirits as much as it can cleanse our souls. That’s why we keep going to the concert halls. Classical music may be a dying art, yet there is no shortage of new talent. We may as well enjoy the true worth of this old art form while it lasts.

DATA:2012/13 JAAP!

Hong Kong philharmonic Orchestra


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