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S & H Concert Review

Busoni, Mozart, Chen, Dvorak; Helen Huang (pf), Heung-Wing (per), Lung Heung Wing (per), Mark Lung (per), Samuel Wong (con); Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Barbican Centre, 27th February, 2003 (AR)


The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is the first, and only, fully professional orchestra in Hong Kong giving 200 performances annually in their own concert hall and throughout the world; this concert was part of their current European tour.

Samuel Wong first came to international prominence when he deputised for Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in 1990. Recognised for his "clarity, confidence and passion" (Washington Post), Wong was appointed Music Director of the HKPO in September 2000. It is evidently a vibrant partnership – indeed, my initial reaction to their playing was how unusual and refreshing it was to hear an orchestra really in tune for once; something glaringly rare among London orchestras of late.

The evening began with a great concert rarity: three sections from Busoni’s short two-act opera Turandot, the synopsis of which is similar to that adopted by Puccini in his unfinished opera (of which the third act Berio completion can be heard at the Barbican in March - ed). Scene 1: The Execution, The City Gate and The Departure, mounts to a frenetic crescendo over a timpani ostinato. HKPO timpanist James Boznos played this atmospheric opening with a suave style and rhythmic bite, keeping his eyes firmly on the conductor. Scene 8: Quasi-Funeral March and Finale alla Turca opened with the most sublime pianissimo string playing (only to be sabotaged by a mobile phone). The sensitive percussion section also shone, playing with rhythmic exactitude and complete togetherness, listening and looking attentively at the rest of the orchestra. Wong’s disciplined direction brought out great delicacy, lyricism and poetry from his players, giving a sublime and sensitive account of this neglected, if rather hybrid, score. (Wong’s HKPO studio account of Busoni’s Turandot Suite Op.41 (1905), coupled with Sarabande and Cortège: Two Studies for Doktor Faust Op.51 (1919), Berceuse élégiaque Op.42, is on Naxos 8.555373.)

Last September, I reviewed Helen Heung’s playing of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto (under Kurt Masur and the LPO) as "a model of computerised  perfection - Lara Croft plays Mozac." The same could be said for her clinical performance of Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto. Heung treated all three movements on the same superficial level, producing a hard, clangourous tone. Her mechanical technique was akin to a speed typist as she whizzed up and down the keyboard. There was something very disturbing about her soulless, hard toned playing; all the notes were there but some-how she was absent: there was no gradation, no idea of contour, no drama. Indeed, there was no interpretation, no performance. What saved this touch-typing travesty from complete oblivion was the very fine accompaniment from the HKPO and Wong, who evoked the darkness and pathos so lacking in Heung’s heavy and hollow playing.

John Chen’s original version of Dragon Wings was composed for the father-son team, Lung Heung-Wing and Mark Lung, for the opening of the 2000 Vancouver Festival. Originally composed for percussion and string orchestra the version performed here was for full orchestra. Dressed in matching braces and bow ties, father and son performed this decidedly camp work with great panache and humour, performing their hand and stick-drumming duo as a ritualistic war-dance like dialogue.

Under Wong’s precisely paced direction, Dvorak 6th Symphony was not interpreted as a superficial showpiece but as an unfolding musical argument. The conductor clearly grasped the structure, dynamics and drama of this great symphony. Wong got sound of great depth and weight from the HKPO, notably in the first movement where ‘cellos and double basses played with great gusto, with the conductor constantly cueing them.

The Adagio was a very moving experience, with Wong eliciting playing of great passion, notably from the sonorous horns and wonderful flute solos (Linda Stuckey). In the Scherzo (Furiant), timpanist James Boznos got the complex cross-rhythms spot on, while Wong conjured up incredible woodwind detailing not often heard clearly in this manic movement. In the Finale the conductor really demonstrated the momentum, the energy, the drive and drama of what, for me, was one of the most satisfying performances of this under-performed symphony. By way of an encore, Wong treated us to a Brahms Hungarian Dance, which received rapturous applause.

The HKPO is a world class orchestra, sounding far more musical and individual than most of the big streamlined, and homogenised, American symphony orchestras; indeed, their dark, warm sonorous tone sounded more akin to the Concertgebouw Orchestra – and I can think of no finer complement.

Samuel Wong showed himself to be a first rate conductor and it was his authoritative and charismatic direction that made this evening a very special occasion.

Alex Russell





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