Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival

Cho-Liang Lin
Financial Times

By Ken Smith

‘Paris and Shanghai’, at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, cleverly balanced Chinese songs and French chamber works by Debussy, Franck and others 

After two reasonably successful outings, the ambitious Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival entered its third season last week with something of a rebranding. The first of the changes was the calendar, with the festival shifting from its previous spot during a typically eventful spring to the traditionally dead time between western and Chinese New Years. Then came the matter of personnel.

Under its founding artistic director, the Hong Kong-born, Juilliard-trained cellist Trey Lee, the festival had initially assembled well-matched rosters of local players and young competition winners, some of whom were discovering individual pieces for the first time. Violinist Cho-Liang Lin, a veteran artistic director of music festivals in places ranging from La Jolla, California, to his native Taipei, now comes to the HKICMF with practically the entire roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on his speed dial. And yet the underlying success of HKICMF 2.0 lay less in world-class playing by marquee names than in finding a similar collaborative balance on a higher plateau.

That balance found its way into the repertory as well. Although Wednesday’s concert at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre was nominally billed “Paris and Shanghai”, a mixture of Chinese songs and French chamber works supposedly evoking a French Concession salon in the 1920s, specific works seemed programmed with more pragmatic reasons in mind.

Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie for Violin and Harp opened the evening, with Lin’s sweet lyrical tone in fluid contrast to harpist Naoko Yoshino’s rhythmical solidity. The Shanghai Quartet and pianist Shai Wosner let the strains of Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle waft evocatively around soprano Ying Huang. Flutist Marina Piccinini floated smoothly though Jean-Pierre Rampal’s arrangement of Franck’s Violin Sonata.

Pleasant pieces all, but merely pleasant. The thinking behind their presence became apparent only after the interval, when a handful of players appeared in markedly different contexts. Huang, after sustaining the mood of the Chausson, played for contrast in Huang Zi’s Five Chinese Songs (arranged for singer and string quartet by Shanghai Quartet second violinist Yi-Weng Jiang). Piccinini and Yoshino returned with violist Paul Neubauer in Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, offering such transparency that the timbral interplay became poetry unto itself.

Debussy and Ravel rounded out the evening, with Lin and Yoshino joined by violinist Michael Ma, violist Andrew Ling, cellist Desmond Hoebig and double bassist DaXun Zhang in Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane, with Hoebig and Zhang replaced by Piccinini and clarinettist Zhai Yao-Guang in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.