The glorious inauguration of Jaap van Zweden as HKPO’s music director

If I am to poll a concert which stunned me the most in recent years, the inauguration concert of Jaap van Zweden as music director of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra surely comes to the top of the poll.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra launches, on the day of Mr. van Zweden’s inauguration concert, a radical rebranding which immediately causes rebuke in Facebook on launch day. However, beside the new logo and new masthead, the orchestra sounds anew as well.

It is simply a different orchestra, compared to another Beethoven symphony played merely two weeks ago.

The change is drastic and immediately noticeable. The strings are so well polished and uniform. The dynamics are dramatic and much nuanced. The timbral changes are dazzling, from silky smoothness to blinding brightness to many colours in-between the wide spectrum. And of course, the music is finely articulated yet positively charged. The sheer excitement stems not only from the emotionally charged surface, but also deep down into the musical details and the very soul of music-making itself.

Mr. van Zweden is an assertive leader. His reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony may be exaggerating and personal; he sometimes makes swells in dynamics so noticeable; he sometimes makes a recapitulation surprisingly quiet; he sometimes allows the syncopated winds to walk out from the unnoticeable background.

One thing is certain though: Mr. van Zweden has spent so much time with every musician to labour on the sound he desires. He is rumoured to be a strict musician, and from the final rehearsal I witness on the concert day, during a press open-call, he is a demanding conductor who works on musical details till the last minute.

Whether his powerhouse presence on the podium is electrifying or electrocuting may be a matter of point of view. But from now the orchestra is never the same.

The inauguration concert opens with a piece by Conrad Tao, an eighteen-year-old Juilliard pianist-violinist-composer. With carefully written inner-voices interweaving with a strong thrust, Pangu is a wonderful craft picturing the Chinese legendary equivalent of the cosmic big-bang.

Before I forget, there actually is a moment of national anthem, received by an audience standing and quietly sitting down afterwards.

Chinese violinist Ning Feng plays the Butterfly Concerto of Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, a concerto à la Chinoise that is so out-of-place between a modern Conrad Tao and a classical Beethoven. The playing may be even more out of place: Mr. Ning’s indulgence in slowing down in phrase ends is like travelling on a vehicle with a driver having some hard time managing the clutch. His encore with a reworking on Schubert’s Erlkönig is not that good either: although it is an interesting rework, the mannerism simply puts off the linear drama of the Lied. A delicate rework on Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra makes a better end of the first half.

The transformation of the orchestra sets in after the intermission and a glass of wine. Mr. van Zweden’s swift baton has been prompting the orchestra to respond quite wonderfully to musical details. Though many details are built-in: the bouncy first movement theme is such a joy to hear. The second movement is adorned with many colour changes registered by the strings. Contrary to many forerunners who tend to make this movement emotional, the monotonous theme here is never rude and over-excited. With the subtle expression, we turn to focus on the musical details which brings to much joy from hearing them adorning the music.

The furiously fast scherzo brings some challenge to the concert hall itself, which is notorious with its messy reflections. The image turns blur when I hear it in the upper stall, but the scherzo demonstrate the orchestra in a very great shape. The finale simply blows many people away, with its assertiveness and brilliance.

“I hope you have come to tonight’s concert,” said I to my editor, after leaving the hall with much joy. “If not, must come tomorrow!”

Date: September 28, 2012
Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Photo © Cheung Chi-wai/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

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