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Adventurous Tour by an Omnipotent Orchestra

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
02/12/2009 -  
Colin Matthews: …through the glass
Benjamin Britten: Les Illuminations
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Ave verum Corpus, K. 618
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Lisa Milne (Soprano), Harriet Williams (Mezzo-soprano), Michael Colvin (Tenor), Stephan Loges (Baritone)
Northern Sinfonia and Chorus, Thomas Zehetmair (Conductor)

The Northern Sinfonia (© Alex Telfer)

The Northern Sinfonia may sound unfamiliar to most Hong Kong audience. Indeed, this Newcastle based ensemble is one of Europe’s most sensational chamber orchestras, which regularly appears at leading international venues such as the Berlin Philharmonie, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Vienna’s Musikverein. The fifty-year-history ensemble, together with its seven-season Music Director Thomas Zehetmair, embraces a wide scope of repertoire, ranging from early Baroque music to newly commissioned works by contemporary composers. In 2009 the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Northern Sinfonia will give three concerts, presenting music by Vivaldi to modern composers, featuring cellist Trey Lee and various vocalists.

Thursday evening’s concert is perhaps the most exciting one among all three (the other two will be on Friday and Saturday evenings), with the first half being devoted to music from the 20th century. But due to the sudden change of soprano (Britten’s Les Illuminations was originally sung by Sandrine Piau), the three newly found movements from Britten’s Les Illuminations were not performed, and were replaced by Mozart’s Ave verum Corpus which will also be in Friday’s program.

The Northern Sinfonia chose a modern composer Colin Matthews’ work as the curtain raiser of its Hong Kong debut. The 16-minute piece was composed in 1994, and inspired by a poem by Edmund Blunden. This piece of free atonal music focuses on exploration of timbre and sonority. Horns with variety of valves, a relatively large percussion ensemble, and the use of harp and piano all allowed our ears to be exposed to different acoustic colors. Unfortunately, the poor acoustics in the Cultural Centre Concert Hall and its lack of resonance somehow shadowed the kaleidoscopic effects, the cardinal parameter of this artwork.

Britten’s Les Illuminations, composed in 1939, was also an inspiration by poetry. It is a song cycle which uses ten poems by the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. The Northern Sinfonia was natively attuned to the hallmarked British style – elegance, majesty and simplicity. The British ensemble rendered the ten sketches with unity, discipline, and a nicely balanced texture. In contrast, soprano Lisa Milne seemed to be upstaged by the excellent performance of the orchestra. Although there was a superb collaboration, her voice was sometimes overshadowed by the bright and glittering tone of the strings, especially during the tutti passages. The emotional and dispositional changes from different movements were also a little over-monochromic.

Mozart’s short miniature Ave verum Corpus was the cynosure of the first half. The utmost purity and probity brought by the choir truly evoked the Corpus Christi, a church ceremony for which the music was written.

Beethoven’s Ninth in the second half was the spotlight of the whole evening. Conductor Zehetmair chose a relatively chamber-size, instead of a massive force we often found in most versions of this symphony. The 14-violin, four-viola and four-cello ensemble, together with their period-oriented playing, gave this cliché some extra classical taste. The plain spoken articulation, minimal string vibrato, wooden timpani sticks, as well as the chamber-scale orchestra, all reminded me the rendition of the same piece by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the 2006 Arts Festival. Even the third Adagio movement was not as expressive and finely polished as we expect; rather, it was flowing, fluent, and coherently delivered. Again, the marvelous choir contributed positively in the last movement, especially during the air-shattering climax near the end.

This omnipotent orchestra honestly deserved audiences’ enthusiastic applause. We are looking forward to their performances on Friday and Saturday evenings, and their conductor Zehetmair’s string quartet on Sunday. Keep tuned to ConcertoNet.com for the latest HKAF reviews.

The Hong Kong Art Festival

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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