17 October 2019

The Orchestra of the Year 2019

Photo Credit: Cheung Wai Lok/HK Phil

At last night’s Gramophone Awards held in the opulent splendour of London’s Connaught Square Rooms, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was named Orchestra of the Year 2019.  This is a great accolade for an orchestra just 45 years old, based in a city well away from any of the traditional centres of musical excellence, and especially when you consider that other contenders for the award included the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Rome, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Les Siècles.  The Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award is made on the basis of recommendations from Gramophone magazine critics and editorial staff who base their selection on recordings released over the past year.  Once they have drawn up the shortlist, it is left to the public to vote for the winner after having, we would hope, carefully listened to the year’s recordings from all 10 shortlisted orchestras.

For many, the award going to the Hong Kong Philharmonic will come as a huge surprise.  After all, unlike many of the other contenders, they are not a major recording orchestra; indeed, to date their recording output has been notably unremarkable and dominated by niche repertory in indifferent recording and performing quality.  Many of the early recordings they made for the nascent Naxos and Marco Polo labels were not so much unremarkable as downright poor, and rarely even made it into the review columns of Gramophone magazine.  Even today, a basic search of recordings by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on any of the international sites yields a lot of recordings made over the past 40 years few of which have ever impinged on to the consciousness of serious collectors. 

But it was a remarkably brave idea from the orchestra’s current music director, Jaap van Zweden, which suddenly rocketed the Hong Kong Philharmonic not just to international fame as a recording orchestra, but got the music-loving public flocking to Hong Kong in their droves to hear them live.  In 2015 he embarked, with the orchestra, on a four-year project to perform the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in concert performances on the stage of the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Centre, which has been the performing home of the orchestra since 1989, and is now showing its age both visually and aurally.  Built at a time when few other cities anywhere in Asia had a state-of-the-art concert hall, the Cultural Arts Centre was one of the parting gifts from the British in anticipation of their handover of their former colony to Chinese rule in 1997.  It has done well, but with its tiles that look increasingly like the walls of a 1970s British public toilet (with, sometimes, the aroma to go with it), a weird wedge shape (it was described at the time as a symbolic representation of China’s claim that they would govern Hong Kong with a “One Country, Two Systems” policy) and an acoustic which does nothing to enhance the music for the audience and incorporates a number of pretty significant blind spots to those attempting to perform on stage, it is now very much the poor man of the region; especially considering the splendid concert halls which have since sprouted up in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and all over mainland China.  It seems hardly the ideal venue to record something which is going to take the musical world by storm.

Each opera of the Ring was presented twice in live concerts, one a season, from Das Rheingold in 2015 to Götterdämmerung in 2018, and each performance was recorded by Naxos who then released each opera as a separate box set.  As the cycle progressed, so word spread around and more and more took an interest in what Hong Kong was doing.  On top of that, speaking with my critic’s hat on (or through it, as some might say) as the cycle progressed, each performance seemed more polished and secure, until with Götterdämmerung we had something which was really, really special.  So it was that opera, which attracted the Gramophone team and prompted them to put it up as a nomination for Orchestra of the Year.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic has been keen to point out that they are the first orchestra in Asia ever to have been nominated as (and now awarded) Orchestra of the Year.  That, again, may cause some surprise. What about those excellent orchestras in Japan, Qatar, Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention those notable ones in China?  Many of them have a much higher recording profile than the HKPO – the NHK Symphony seems to have been a fixture on the recording circuit for decades, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra produced a series of absolutely fabulous CDs for BIS in the early noughties, while the Singapore Symphony have been churning out well-received CDs (again, mostly on the BIS label) for years.  And the Shanghai Philharmonic has just been signed up to be an exclusive recording orchestra by Deutsche Grammophon. 

All this goes to show just what a remarkable achievement van Zweden’s Ring Cycle has been.  While one can argue that a great recording of an opera is far more than a showcase for an orchestra (something van Zweden was himself anxious to stress in his acceptance speech for the Gramophone Awards) a comment that has resonated in almost every review of the HK/Wagner cycle is typified by this quote from Andrew Clements in The Guardian; “Some elements have remained at a high standard throughout [the cycle] – namely the quality of the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic”.  Looking back over the reviews I’ve written about the orchestra, I note that in Gramophone magazine as far back as 2013 I was writing (with reference to a recording of Tan Dun’s music newly released on the Naxos Label); “This is a vivid demonstration of true orchestral virtuosity”.  (I like to be proved right once in a while!)

I first heard the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the late 1980s, and I was left pretty unimpressed.  As one colleague suggested, it comprised largely dispirited players who would never get a seat in a world-class orchestra and increasingly disillusioned young players who aspired to one.  I’m not sure that was a fair comment, but it certainly was difficult to argue with when you heard them on occasions.  At one point, after the departure of David Atherton as its principal conductor, there were even doubts about its sustainability.  But first Edo de Waart and then Jaap van Zweden revitalised it, brought in some brilliant players, and now, after seven years at the helm, van Zweden has completed the task most thought impossible; to make it the finest orchestra in the world (in the view of Gramophone magazine’s readership – and they comprise some of the world’s most perceptive and demanding music lovers).

So what comes next?  Will the orchestra start attracting the same level of international attention for its mainstage week-by-week season concerts as it did for the one-off, but headline grabbing Ring cycle?

No mention of Hong Kong today can pass without comment on the fragile political situation which is unravelling there.  With street demonstrations happening on a daily basis and the world holding its breath to see what China will do to stamp its authority on its recalcitrant Special Administrative Zone, how is the Hong Kong Philharmonic coping?  Diplomatically, a press release issued from the orchestra to coincide with the Gramophone Award points out that it allows its players and staff to express their own views on the current situation peacefully and holds no official position itself.  But it is being affected with concerts cancelled or re-timed in anticipation of civil unrest.  And the postponement this year of the orchestra’s biggest annual event – the Swire Symphony Under the Starts concert held against the spectacular setting of the Hong Kong Harbourfront – shows just how fragile its future might be.  This is by far and away the highest profile event it stages, and while the financial loss cannot be insignificant, the loss of prestige may be even more daunting.  So much is riding on how the current political climate in Hong Kong resolves itself, and that includes the very future of the orchestra.  Unless and until Hong Kong comes to its senses and starts behaving once again like a civilised city in the 21st century, visiting music lovers are not going to risk running the gauntlet of violent protestors and violent police retaliation, even if the prize is as artistically enticing as the Ring Cycle.

One thing is certain, however.  With this Award to its credit, the Hong Kong Philharmonic suddenly has a lot more friends in lot more high places than it had before, and if nothing else, it tells the world that there is more to Hong Kong than tall buildings, tourist kitsch, shopping, tear gas and face masks; and that, alone, sets it way above the other nine orchestras in this year’s shortlist.

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