In September, Kahchun Wong will take over from Mark Elder as the Hallé’s principal conductor and artistic adviser. The Singapore-born Wong first conducted the Manchester orchestra in February last year, and he has also conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, but this concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was his London debut, and a first chance to discover what it is about his conducting that has convinced the Hallé he should be their next chief.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony offered the best opportunity of what Wong might have to offer. His account, superbly played by the BBCSO, was a slow burn, solemn almost somnolent in the opening pages, and only gradually building momentum through the first movement. Though the fiercer edges of the scherzo were rather blunted too, Wong did his best to turn the Largo into a truly tragic statement, making it rather drawn-out in the process, before turning the finale into a manic gallop. Some of the audience thought the performance worth a standing ovation; others, I suspect, were less convinced.
But at least the first half of the concert had suggested that the Hallé’s future programmes might include more adventurous repertoire than in recent years. Wong devoted it to two works by Japanese composers, one of them receiving its UK premiere. That was Toshio Hosokawa’s Prayer, a violin concerto in six continuous sections, inspired by the Buddhist statues found in temples and by roadsides in Japan. Hosokawa describes the soloist as a shaman and the orchestra as the “cosmos”, and there’s the sense throughout the concerto of the violin summoning the orchestra to join it, as the violin line begins floating in the stratosphere, and gradually acquires swooping, skittering motion as the orchestral textures accumulate beneath. With Sayaka Shoji as the perfectly poised soloist, it seemed shapely enough in a brittle, rather unmemorable way.
Wong had opened with the work that established Tōru Takemitsu’s international reputation, his Requiem for Strings of 1957, woven from spare, elegiac phrases. On the day on which the death was announced of Seiji Ozawa, doyen of Japanese conductors and longtime champion of Takemitsu’s music, it could hardly have been a more appropriate choice.
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