Hong Kong Philharmonic, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Jahja Ling
Financial Times (UK)

By Ken Smith

Last week’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China offered a musical windfall for the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, composed 50 years ago to commemorate the country’s first decade. In many ways, the piece, written by composer Chen Gang and violinist He Zhanhao – then students at the Shanghai Conservatory – is an enigma, frequently listed as the most performed concerto of the 20th century but still a rarity in the west. Often called the “Tchaikovsky Concerto of the east”, its mix of traditional Chinese tunes and faux-Russian orchestration actually suggests Glinka: the precursor of a musical revolution that would probably have transpired had the Cultural Revolution not got in the way.

Being less directly political than most subsequent Chinese works, it remains less dated today – which rather explains why it turned up on at least half a dozen orchestral programmes last week, including in Hong Kong and Macau. The Hong Kong Philharmonic, however, provided additional musical value, opening the evening with Huang Ruo’s Still/Motion, a 12-minute companion piece commissioned by the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival to “create a contemporary dialogue with the Chinese classic”, and premiered there in May.

Taking his respective inspirations from the stillness of Tang Dynasty court music and the motion of Chinese opera, the Hainan-born, New York-based Huang deftly puts a pair of tunes – the Butterfly Lovers theme from Yue opera and the Emperor’s Princess-Flower tune from Cantonese opera – through a range of compositional techniques. Slowly shifting (and occasionally microtonal) layers of sound eventually give way to a minimalist deconstruction where extended repetitions of melodic fragments give the illusion of stillness. Whether Still/Motion has a life of its own remains to be seen, but as a “dialogue” with the Butterfly Lovers it more than fits the bill.

The performance, on the other hand, betrayed an overall lack of rehearsal, with rhythms failing to align with full clarity. Much the same problem came with the Butterfly Lovers concerto, where soloist Xue Wei’s tone floated with clear suggestion of the winged subjects but transitions in the musical narrative from the orchestra often seemed arbitrary.

After the interval, it seemed fairly obvious that most of the rehearsal time had gone into Dvorák’s Symphony No 8. Under conductor Jahja Ling, the Dvorák unfolded with fine stylistic cohesion, its orchestral idiom seamlessly rooted in folk music and its surface naivety clearly revealing an underlying sophistication. In other words, the dialogue with the Butterfly Lovers was still under way.