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Evening of Pleasant Surprises
by Stephen Prins
HK Standard


For at least one person who turned up at City Hall for the recent Hong Kong Sinfonietta concert and was unsure of what to expect, it was an evening of pleasant surprises. Concert-goers who do not necessarily go out of their way to hear music from China should have been happy to be present at this particular concert.

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Pianist Ma Cong

Entitled "A Musical Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China", the program was a showcase of orchestral and choral works by mainland composers, and arrangements of folk songs and dance music. The program included two works by Western composers as well.

The first surprise was the Sinfonietta itself. The dictionary defines sinfonietta as a small orchestra, but it was an impressive army of some 76 musicians who walked on stage, not to mention the unseen nine-man brass
band that was present for the opening work

The big surprise was the sheer pleasure the program gave to someone who might have felt a tad out of it at an all-Chinese cultural event. This was stirring, exalting stuff; Chinese music given the grand symphonic treatment.The Shostakovich Festival Overture gave the program a thoroughly rousing start, with conductor Tsung Yeh demonstrating that the Hong Kong Sinfonietta can be as powerful and brilliant a music force as any orchestra in town.The overture was followed by Chinese Sights and Sounds, four descriptive pieces based on folk songs and dance melodies arranged by Bao Yankai.The first, Happiness at Sunrise, was haunting and magical in its atmospheric effects, evoking the mood and colours of dawn with a Debussy-like clarity.The Rippling Brook was equally evocative, while Buffalo Boy and Girl and Festival Day went at an exhilarating clip.Now the orchestra was warmed up for one of the main works: the world premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 5 by Kuan Nai-chung. The solo part placed in the capable hands of one of Hong Kong's finest young pianists, 29-year-old Ma Cong, the work came through triumphantly well.The concerto, written in three movements, is a warm, colourful, lyrical and powerful work, with some truly virtuoso writing for the piano.The basically pentatonic, "Chinese", flavour of the music was not lost in the rich scoring and a busy piano part that recalled Rachmaninov in its huge, strong chords and keyboard-length runs.The pianist was more than up to its thrilling technical demands, and sensitive without being sentimental in quieter moments. Ma Cong turned in a committed, moving and masterly performance. Strongly percussive scoring, almost Stravinsky-like, ensured that romantic sentiments did not turn sweet. The composer, conductor and pianist had been working closely together on the concerto for the past four months, with the Canada-based Kuan Nai-chung refining the score long-distance right up to the eve of the concert.The piece was commissioned by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for the anniversary concert.The second half of the program comprised a series of patriotic songs, for which the orchestra was joined by tenor Warren Mok and a choir with members from the Hong Kong Oratorio Society, the Allegro Singers and the Hong Kong Chamber Choir.Music performed with fervour cannot but move, and songs like My Dear Motherland and The Ocean, My Homeland had a stirring effect.|Warren Mok, who had been busy singing impassioned arias on the other side of the harbour as Don Jose in the opera Carmen, brought a note of gravity to a medley of songs based on verses by Mao edong. The orchestral scoring by Zhu Jian'er made a magnificent background to Mok's powerful performance. A bright shift of tone, with Verdi's Triumphal March and Ballet from the opera Aida, gave a resounding finish to a wonderful evening of music
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