The Hong Kong Cultural Centre with its distinctive “ski slope” roof is spectacularly located on the Kowloon peninsula. With its large open plaza, historic clock tower, harbourside walkways and stunning views back across the water to Hong Kong Island, it is one of Hong Kong’s must-see tourist sites.

It is Wednesday January 17 and hundreds of people are milling around enjoying the sights in glorious sunshine. Though many of the visitors will know little or nothing about Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, they will be aware that the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is about to perform it in concert.

Jaap van ZwedenJaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and singers at the end of the first performance of Götterdämmerung. Photograph © Ramond Ho

An enormous poster featuring the orchestra’s Music Director, Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, covers three of the enormous pillars at the base of the building. Inside, giant banners for the production hang from the balconies in the spacious atrium, while the poster, with its drawing by English illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939), decorates the steps of the staircase up to the Concert Hall. In the Concert Hall foyer, there is footage from last year’s performance of Siegfried, and several glass cases, which display a Wagner tuba and pages from Van Zweden’s marked score for Siegfried.

The two performances of Götterdämmerung on January 18 and 21 bring to an end the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s four-year in-concert Ring cycle – a hugely ambitious undertaking for the comparatively young orchestra, which only became fully professional in 1974 and which doesn’t have much of a Wagnerian track record.

When the Cycle began in 2015, few could have predicted that it would become such an international calling card for the Orchestra, but thanks to critically acclaimed live recordings of each of the operas released by Naxos, news of the Cycle has spread far and wide.

Chatting to a small group of international media, flown by the Hong Kong Government to Hong Kong for an arts and culture visit including the first performance of Götterdämmerung, Michael MacLeod, the Orchestra’s Chief Executive, describes Wagner’s epic tetralogy as “a backbone” of Van Zweden’s tenure.

“When I came here in 2011 and Jaap arrived nine months later, one of the first things we did was think about giving his tenure with Hong Kong Philharmonic a backbone, not just a thread but a backbone, so we came up with the idea of doing The Ring Cycle because it had never been done before in Hong Kong, not even foreign orchestras had played it here. No one had ever played the Ring in Hong Kong [or any] operas in it,” says MacLeod.

The undertaking – which was made possible by supplementary Government funding – has proved hugely successful. Musical standards are universally acknowledged to have risen since Van Zweden took over as Music Director in 2012 – a development reflected in the Naxos recordings of the Ring, with Götterdämmerung scheduled for release in November.

Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and singers at the end of the first performance of Götterdämmerung. Photograph © Ka Lam

Audiences have grown with each opera, and the second performance of Götterdämmerung is all but sold out. Meanwhile, the critical response has been extremely positive with Gramophone describing it as “A Ring from Hong Kong to take on the world”, while the Die Walküre was a runner-up in Limelight’s Opera Recording of the Year for 2017. International invitations have followed and last October the Hong Kong Phil played in the pit for a staging of Die Walküre at the Beijing Music Festival.

Chatting in his room backstage, the Maestro himself acknowledges the ambitious nature of the project and says he is thrilled by the way the Orchestra has risen to the challenge. “Oh yes, absolutely. I think that they stepped up. First of all, everybody needed to be inspired and [feel that we are putting] our shoulders under this incredible project, starting, of course, with the Government saying this is something we would really like you to do. And then, of course, the key word is ‘inspiration’, [to] inspire each other to reach the highest of what is possible for an orchestra that is only 40-something years old,” says Van Zweden.

“When I came here and looked at the programmes being done, I thought, ‘this is a very good moment maybe to do this piece’. I knew that this was not something very easy to put together. Financially it’s not easy, and then hoping for the best singers, and also hoping that the style of playing, the world of Wagner, we can really embrace that as an orchestra was, of course, a challenge. But it was very worthwhile to do this because I think the orchestra has changed dramatically,” he says.

“I think they really understand what’s going on and I always say: ‘it’s not about your own part that you can play but that you understand what the others are doing around you in the orchestra, so you are part of a huge organism, where every single player is as important’. And at the same time in this music you are looking for the long lines, but that is built up by the details. So, to reach the point that all the details are really in the right place, and then forget about it and go for the long lines, that is quite a road to walk, but I think they really did well.”

The fact that the Cycle has had such international acclaim was a welcome side effect, but not the reason for staging it, says Van Zweden using the analogy of a main road and side road.

“We didn’t go for the result worldwide, we went for an investment in our orchestra sound and an investment in our relationship with the singers, and to get to learn together these wonderful four operas – and that is our main road. I would also say that on the main road was the recording. Naxos invested hugely and did an incredible job, and we are thankful forever to Klaus Heymann [the German founder and head of the Naxos label] that he did that for us,” he says.

“And then the side roads appear – that it is being appreciated first of all by our public, and then second of all internationally. [That] is a wonderful side road but it is not the main road. The main road is always to do the thing the best you can.”

Jaap van Zweden conducting Götterdämmerung. Photograph © Ramond Ho

Van Zweden himself has fallen hook, line and sinker for the Ring telling Limelight prior to the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 2107 tour to Australia: “I learned so much, mostly during the rehearsals. I learned when you are sucked into this world of Wagner, it’s very hard not to fall in love with it. It’s also very hard to pull yourself out. It took me a few days to come down to Earth after the last Siegfried, and go to other orchestras and do different programmes. When you are addicted to Wagner, you are addicted to a world of magic, which is just beyond belief.”

Asked how he feels about it now, he says he has enjoyed the whole experience “tremendously”, before adding, “It’s a lot of pressure because every time [we perform the next opera in the Cycle] it gets better and better. We went back a few months ago to Die Walküre actually. We played it in Beijing and it was an enormous success there. And so, going back to that world and seeing the orchestra now really absorbing the music of Wagner puts also pressure on me that I really tell them what is the next step.”

He would, he says, be keen to conduct another Ring Cycle. “There are a lot of orchestras now asking for me to do it. I did already all the other Wagners, I did Parsifal, I did Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger, I did them in The Netherlands.”

Not The Flying Dutchman though? “No, I’m not so keen on that piece,” he admits with a laugh. “But for the rest I did them all and [the Ring] was, of course, also a very important step for myself to have that under my belt, and I think that the orchestra, creating a different sound palette and adapting the playing, really improved dramatically for the orchestra.”

The first performance of Götterdämmerung was indeed an exciting occasion. The orchestra gave an impressive performance with Van Zweden’s meticulous attention to detail evident in every musical phrase. The orchestra (enhanced by an additional 15 players) responded to his every gesture from the podium, playing with such an intensity and passion it felt as if the players were almost jumping out of their skins at times.

Van Zweden conveyed a keen sense of the overall architecture of the opera and the dramatic, emotional sweep of the music, building to exhilarating bursts of glorious, soaring sound in the musical climaxes. It was fascinating to watch him on the podium channeling the music as he coaxed, cajoled and inspired the players, almost airborne at times, thrusting his baton high into the air for the climactic ending of Acts I and II.

Gun-Brit Barkin as Brünnhilde. Photograph © Ka Lam

With such a large orchestra on stage, rather than in the pit, some of the singers struggled at times to be heard over the swelling score – but no such difficulties for German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, making her debut as Brünnhilde. Her Wagnerian repertoire includes Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Elsa in Lohengrin, and she recently sang her first Isolde at Oper Graz. Her voice has a bright, gleaming steeliness with a clarion clarity and blazing top notes. Dramatically, she has great presence and delivered a dignified, fierce Brünnhilde you wouldn’t want to mess with. Her performance is bound to deepen emotionally with time, but she had plenty of firepower vocally and dramatically in an impressive debut.

American heldentenor Daniel Brenna played Siegfried – a role he has sung in Washington, Vienna, Budapest and Denmark. In 2013, he sang both Siegmund and Siegfried in a shortened Ring cycle for Opéra Dijon, and later this year sings Siegfried in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung for San Francisco Opera. Even in the concert setting for Hong Kong, his performance captured the character’s gung-ho, impulsive, boyish truculence, then his naivety and growing confusion at Hagen’s betrayal, and he sang with clarity and lyricism, his top notes particularly stirring.

There were powerful performances from Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang as Gunther, American bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, Hungarian bass-baritone Peter Kálmán as Alberich, and Michelle DeYoung as Waltraute, while American lyric soprano Amanda Majeski – who recently sang Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte at the Metropolitan Opera and who will make her debut as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Beijing this year – made a fine debut as Gutrune, singing with a crystalline expressiveness.

The chorus was also a powerful force – their ranks made up of three groups: the Bamberg Symphony Chorus from Bavaria, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus, and the State Choir Latvija, which has previously performed with Van Zweden in Parsifal in Amsterdam. Eberhard Friedrich, the Choral Director of the Bayreuth Festival and the Hamburg State Opera, spent five days in Hong Kong working with them to create a unified sound.

This may not be the last chance that Hong Kong audiences get to experience the Ring. Not only is 2020 the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, which the Hong Kong Phil will be celebrating along with just about every other orchestra in the world, but it is the 150th anniversary of the first performance of Die Walküre, so MacLeod suggests that they may revisit the opera then. It is also hoped that the major new development at the West Kowloon Cultural District will eventually include a new concert hall.

“Jaap and I love crazy plans… so one crazy plan is that when the new hall actually opens we will bring the Ring Cycle back and do it in one week so people can come to Hong Kong from anywhere in the world,” says MacLeod.

“Love to!” says Van Sweden later of the idea. “It would be nice to open the hall like that,” he adds with a delighted chuckle.

In September, Van Zweden takes up the plum position of Music Director at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s top orchestras. “The New York Philharmonic has an incredible reputation, has an incredible name, has an incredible legacy of unbelievable conductors and so, how do I feel about that? Humble,” he says. “And being really proud that they chose me. At the same time, they are expecting quite some things from me and they are right, they should be,” he says.

“So, to tell you what is going to be the programme is hard because it is going to be announced in February. I know you want to know it. I understand. They all want to know, ‘what is the programme?’ But I can tell you that I would say one of the pillars of the New York Philharmonic is always to produce new music, new composers, and celebrate the talent of living composers. That will stay there.”

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph © Ka Lam

When his appointment was announced, some commentators questioned whether that would be the case. “Yes. And the interesting thing is that before the Hong Kong Phil and Dallas [Symphony Orchestra where he has just completed 10 years as Music Director], I was the Music Director of the Radio Philharmonic in The Netherlands and I had to do there every other week new pieces. A radio orchestra always does that and when the people in New York wrote that they were not sure if I would like to do that I was sort of surprised that they did not look a little bit in my diary and see, ‘wow, every other week he did new pieces’. That was for more than five or six years. But it is all OK. Let me just begin and we will see what they say,” says Van Zweden.

As to the key things he would like to achieve there, he says that he can’t discuss that yet. “The difficulty with an orchestra is that you can hardly make a plan, what you want to change or what you want to achieve, it is a working process. It’s like being on a road with each other and during that journey you will encounter things that you want to improve or put in the spotlight. The New York Philharmonic is a diamond, sometimes you want to shine it a little, polish it, but we have to start. That is the thing. I can’t say a lot of things about this orchestra, not New York yet.”

As for Hong Kong, he will stay with the Philharmonic until the 2021/22 season. Discussing his decision to remain with them for a few more years, he waxes lyrical. “When I would kiss my wife, I don’t look over her shoulder to see if there is something better. When there is an involvement, there is an involvement, when there is a commitment, there is a commitment. And I think that there is still a lot to go for and still a lot we are looking for with this orchestra,” he says.

“And since we put so much seed in the ground [over the] last [few] years I like to enjoy the flowers now that they are coming out, and do that with them because they really deserve the recognition that they now get. It has been an incredible road but also hard work, and not only from the members but from the staff, the investment from the Government, the investment from the audience who really embrace our orchestra more than ever. I would say that we all deserve that, and so when we celebrate something that we started five years ago, I am really proud of that so I will stick around a little if you don’t mind.”

The live recording of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s Götterdammerung will be released on the Naxos recording label in November.