HK Philharmonic 2015-2016 Season Opener with Tan Dun

Last night I attended the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s season opener, a concert consisting of mostly Tan Dun in person and in pieces. The program consisted of two of Tan Dun’s more recent works, Symphonic Poem on Three Notes and Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, and the classic Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e minor, with 19-year-old Chinese prodigy Zeyu Victor Li on the violin. Tan Dun conducted the entire program.

Symphonic Poem on Three Notes was written as a birthday gift to Placido Domingo in 2012, on the notes la, si, do (A, B, C). When arriving on stage, percussionist Zhang Xinru bowed behind three large car rims – which meant the audience couldn’t really see her. (She stepped around the percussion setup to bow at the end of the piece, which was an improvement.) The piece was extremely polyrhythmic and thus difficult for such a large group of people to keep together: At the beginning of the piece, the orchestra had a lot of trouble syncing their parts together, even under Tan Dun’s baton, but they figured it out about two minutes into the work and still had a fairly clean performance. The piece itself was very fun to listen to: The three car rims, tuned to the notes of the theme, added a bright (yet thick) texture to the music. Not bad for the start of the concert.

The second piece, the Mendelssohn, could have been a lot better. There is no doubt that the young Victor Li is definitely technically sound: His spiccato popped so perfectly evenly that you could tell he had years to perfect it. He played with the youthful energy of, well, a 19-year-old, and his love of violin was evident through his playing. But youthfulness does have its drawbacks: Li isn’t quite at the level of maturity to play the concerto as emotively as a Romantic piece should be played. His foot tapping was also audible – something that every performer should be conscious of and thus never have an issue with. Still, he has a long career ahead of him, so he’s got a little time to fix it before it really hinders his performance opportunities.

At the same time, Tan Dun wasn’t much help at the podium either. Two minutes in and you just knew he was totally not into the Mendelssohn. He couldn’t quite follow Li – or maybe he was tired, or didn’t care to, who knows – so even when Li did want to be more temporally flexible, the orchestra just couldn’t follow him. It’s a shame that Tan Dun wasn’t mentally there: The concerto could have been so much more.

Li’s encore was an etude on spiccato, which was perfectly fitting. He missed a few notes, but it was still good stuff.

After the intermission was Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, with harpist Elizabeth Hainen. Two small projection screens were placed on either side of the stage in the middle of the orchestra, with a larger one behind the stage, for the film footage that Tan Dun shot and edited himself. I absolutely loved the music: Several times during the singing portions of the videos, I nearly teared up. Some of the shots were well done as well, as Tan Dun split up the perspectives between the three screens – but since I sat in the middle of the hall, I was able to see all three screens and get the full experience. I’m sure that with that setup some people sitting in the side sections had some trouble seeing the screens on the opposite side. Overall, this was probably my favourite part of the program.

Tonight’s performance will probably be better, as the orchestra and performers have had a little more time to work with each other. Regardless, I still really enjoyed the concert; it was a great opening night for the HK Phil.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars
Concert Program

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