Even as COVID-19 prevents music lovers worldwide from congregating in different venues, the Hong Kong Arts Festival has soldiered on, providing some live events and many online links for those of us who cannot travel.
To kick off the 2021 season, it fell to the redoubtable Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (last heard in these pages in Lucerne: cross-references below). For this occasion, music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada was on the podium, producing mixed results in the varied program.
Dutch composer Carlijn Metselaar’s Vorfreude (“joyful anticipation”)—so appropriate during the hope for the end to the pandemic—led off. Somewhat an extended fanfare (featuring instrumentalists in the balconies reminding many of Ives’ offstage trumpet in his Unanswered Question along with Holst-like brass), the performance had a tentative, almost “tight” feeling rather than unbounded exuberance.
Highlights were the violas’ “heavenly” interventions and the always dependable double basses.
The featured soloist was German soprano, Cristiane Karg, bringing illuminating life to five songs from the imaginative pen of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. After a somewhat tentative, near pitch-perfect start (“Snowdrop”), the music went from strength to strength with a wonderful sense of ensemble. “Serenade” was blessed with an ideal tempo and imaginative colourings. “Billet-doux” wonderfully personified the feeling of “I am Lonely”—so apt in 2021. The VPO”s famed ethereal strings were spot-on, adding much to the searing drama of “Summer”. Finally, (from The Dead City, “Joy that to me remained”) was deeply felt, if a tad hampered by a video cutout (the joys of online streaming) and almost-together ensemble. Still, the overarching warmth made this a reading to remember.
In keeping with the program’s overall theme of surviving these challenging times, it was entirely appropriate to conclude with Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life.
Following a strong, powerful opening, Orozco-Estrada was, at times, unable to keep the forward thrust of this mighty score heading to its far-off, but magnificently planned conclusion. At times more frantic than excited—and once more deftly using offstage musicians—the performance seemed to be “just so” rather than exhilarating. But with the first dulcet tones from concertmaster Sophie Heinrich, the music soared like never before. With agility, nimbleness and deft understanding of Strauss’ intentions in his eighth tone poem, the mostly wearing-masks audience revelled in the results and, no doubt, left the hall hoping for COVID’s hero to soon reach their arms. JWR