The Season Opener of the Hong Kong Philharmonic on 9 and 10 October 2020 was a remarkable model for a path forward for classical performance in the era of COVID. Temperature checks upon arrival with Masks de rigeur throughout, and each row had sections of seats blocked off to maintain adequate social distance. As if underscoring the shared nature of this predicament, orchestra members themselves spread out in the balcony while performing the opening piece, Copland's war-time era Fanfare for the Common Man. While one might shy away from analogies to battle and combat, the work impressively filled the potential of a tribute to the front-line health care professionals that have taken the brunt of this perplexing ongoing pandemic. Applying a classic work from the repertoire for such a contemporary purpose further underlies the importance of public performance which offers a space to reflect, pay tribute and even mourn those now absent.
With music director Jaap van Zweden still undergoing compulsory quarantine, Lio Kuokman, the first Chinese individual to hold his current position of assistant conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, filled in admirably, serving simultaneously as both conductor and pianist for Beethoven's Triple Concerto. Acting as a kind of referee between the dueling violin (Jing Wang) and cello (Richard Bamping) of that piece, he conducted with gymnastic aplomb, rising and falling back to the piano bench, like an inflated exercise balance ball.
The finale of the night, Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, concluded the festivities on a discordant if not surreal note of delirious and boisterious maudlin fantasy world, strangely in tune with the strange nature of the concert precautions and a new reality of the everyday outside.
Yet the most memorable offering of the evening by far was the rendering of Doming Lam's Thanksgiving to Joe-Kwan, the Kitchen God, the applause for which was greeted by the composer himself, helped to the stage in a wheelchair with all of his ninety-four years.
A fully-realized fusion of Chinese tradition and the avant-garde, this work reflects an entirely different form and procedure beyond expectations of European music. Here the music rolls in like a thunder storm akin to a natural phenomenon where elements of melody occur only around the edges. The effect is less than a sonorous communication of a line of speech than the overwhelming of the senses. Off stage percussion, from plucking of the inside of the piano to odd pairings of flute and xylophone never truly in tandem or solo, break apart boundaries few are aware ever exist, and point the way forward to so many promising new possibilities.
Copyright © 12 October 2020
Adam J Sacks,
Hong Kong, China