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Symphony of the stars

HK EDITION | Updated: 2024-03-19 15:10
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Widely acknowledged as one of Asia's finest classical music ensembles, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its turning professional. Mariella Radaelli caught up with the orchestra's outgoing music director Jaap van Zweden on the sidelines of a nine-city tour to mark its golden jubilee.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating the golden jubilee of its turning into a professional company. One of the highlights of the celebratory concerts spread out across a year was a six-country European tour that kicked off in Dresden, Germany, on Feb 24 and ended in Brussels on March 8. In between the orchestra has performed in Zurich, Switzerland; Toulouse, and Aix-en-Provence, France; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Basel, Switzerland; and Rome, Italy.

HK Phil's Music Director Jaap van Zweden says that while their last European tour in 2015 had cemented the orchestra's place on the world stage, this most-recent one too marked a significant milestone. "It is a meaningful way to commemorate the orchestra's achievements and showcase its musical excellence to European audiences," says the Dutch maestro.

The program featured the first symphonies by both Brahms and Mahler as well as Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. Virtuoso French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition and Gilmore Artist Award, joined the orchestra on the tour, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The concerts opened with an HK Phil-commissioned piece, Daniel Lo's Asterismal Dance. The Hong Kong composer describes his new work as "a scherzo fantastique brimming with a sense of eager and energetic rhythm". "The composition does not adhere to the common forms of classical music but unfolds a series of musical materials traversing different instrumental sections of the orchestra, like stars scattered across the sky," he adds.

Van Zweden bows out

The European tour, preceded by a concert in Singapore on Feb 20, also marks Van Zweden's final season with the HK Phil, at the end of an illustrious 12-year tenure. Under his baton, the orchestra touched new heights with a critically acclaimed recording of Wagner's The Ring - an operatic tetralogy of blistering force. The HK Phil became the first Asian orchestra to clinch the Orchestra of the Year title at the 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards, primarily on the strength of that recording.

"That was a magical moment," Van Zweden recalls. "It was a significant achievement for the HK Phil, marking its place on the global stage and bringing recognition to Asian orchestral excellence."

Other highlights of his time leading the HK Phil include the orchestra's acclaimed performances and recordings of Shostakovich's Symphony Nos 5 and 9 and Mahler's Symphony No 10.

Besides making his mark in terms of reinterpreting the works composed by the giants of Western classical music, Van Zweden has also proved himself as a champion of new music, having provided a platform to a number of Hong Kong composers. "We aim to showcase a wide range of classical repertoire while also nurturing and promoting local talent," he says. "This means engaging with composers, providing opportunities for their works, and celebrating cultural diversity through musical expression. We always invite composers to our rehearsals, especially for new works. Through dialogues and communications, we ensure that their artistic voices are authentically represented in our performances."

He sounds confident that the HK Phil will continue to embrace artistic innovation and musical excellence even after he has moved on to his next job as the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra: "The foundation we have built together will serve as a solid platform for future success and artistic growth." Van Zweden leaves with the fond hope that the orchestra will continue to solidify its position on the global stage, inspire audiences, and nurture the next generation of musicians after his departure.

"I am so proud of the HK Phil and our accomplishments," he adds. "My journey with the HK Phil has been amazing. The experiences, collaborations, and cultural exchanges have enriched my perspective and deepened my artistic sensibilities, both musically and personally. I have found inspiration in the orchestra and the vibrant city of Hong Kong."

Attracting the virtuosos

The HK Phil's inaugural concert after it had turned into a professional company supported by the local government was held on Jan 11, 1974, at the City Hall, under the direction of maestro Lim Kek-tjiang. However, its roots go as far back as 1895, when it was called the Sino-British Orchestra. The HK Phil got its present name in 1957. The Italian violinist and conductor Arrigo Foa, who has served as an inspiration to a generation of Hong Kong musicians, was the orchestra's star performer at the time.

Hans-Gnther Mommer succeeded Lim as music director in 1977. Ling Tung took over from Mommer in 1979. Kenneth Schermerhorn served as the conductor from 1984-89, leading the ensemble on its first tour of the Chinese mainland in 1986. In the years that followed the orchestra has gone from strength to strength, attracting world-renowned musicians such as London Sinfonietta founder David Atherton, and Dutch conductor Edo de Waart.

Van Zweden says that the HK Phil was already one of the most significant orchestras in Asia when he took charge in 2012. "I found this orchestra had great potential," he says. "The musicians were talented and dedicated, and I saw the opportunity to further elevate their capabilities and artistic expression."

Look back in gratitude

Vera Tsu Weiling, a renowned violinist who was the first associate concertmaster of the HK Phil from 1993 to 2000, says, "The HK Phil is a shining business card for Hong Kong, and I am proud to have been a part of it."

A gifted music talent discovered by the American violin legend Isaac Stern, Tsu spent seven years at the HK Phil, when it was helmed by Atherton. "I continue to appreciate his style and approach to orchestral training, and I have benefited greatly from his precise verbal expression," says Tsu, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Conservatory of Music in Shenzhen as well as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Her most cherished memories of her HK-Phil days are the opening and closing concerts of the Beijing Music Festival, held in October 1998. "I was the soloist. Atherton conducted the two concerts at the Great Hall of the People and the Zhongshan Concert Hall in Beijing, which were very well-received."

Pride of Asia

"The HK Phil is the flagship orchestra not only of Hong Kong but of the region, with an international reputation that attracts world-renowned musicians and conductors," says Daniel KL Chua, chair professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Music and a Beethoven scholar. "A symphony orchestra always signifies a mark of prestige for any city, but the HK Phil is much more than a civic trophy. It functions as the inspirational center of symphonic music in Hong Kong. It is quite staggering that we have this level of music-making in this city."

The 96 musicians on the HK Phil's rolls come from all over the world. "I don't know if there is a particular HK-Phil sound, but its cosmopolitan make-up gives the orchestra a global feel," Chua observes. "It is as if the world converges on this orchestra, especially with its mix of performers from the East and West. The HK Phil comes together to make great music from the diversity of talent in its ranks."

"Van Zweden has raised the bar and the orchestra's international profile over the last 10 years, and now the HK Phil is in an excellent position to attract the world's leading conductors in order to take it forward artistically," he adds. "So the future looks bright."

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