Monday, November 6, 2017

Chinese Visitors Bring Dazzling Harrison to Davies

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony hosted the debut visit of the China National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Orchestra led by its Music Director and Chief Conductor (also NCPA Artistic Director of Music) Lü Jia, also making his debut under SFS auspices. Lü prepared a well-conceived “East Meets West” program, which included his own acknowledgement of this being the year of composer Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday, which took place this past May 14. Harrison’s memory was honored with a performance of his concerto for pipa, which was composed about twenty years ago.

Wu Man performing with her pipa (from Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Michael Coghlan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The concerto was written for Wu Man (pictured above), who has established herself as a leading virtuoso pipa player and has frequently appeared as guest artist in recitals given by the Kronos Quartet. If “East Meets West” was the overall theme of Lü’s program, then it was also the theme of Harrison’s concerto. As was frequently the case over his lifetime, Harrison created a goulash of impressions of different cultures from around the world, all delivered with an ebullient rhetoric suggesting the fiery spices that characterize that Hungarian stew. Indeed, the entire concerto is practically a goulash within a goulash, so to speak, since its second movement, entitled “Bits and Pieces” amounts to a four-movement suite of miniature impressions, each reflecting a decidedly different culture.

It is within this suite that the pipa has the one opportunity to celebrate its ancient Chinese roots. (The instrument goes back at least as far as the Han Dynasty, which flourished during the second century.) The title of that movement is “Wind and Plum;” and it was clear that, through working with Wu, Harrison cultivated a perceptive impression of the pipa’s historical roots. The other “Bits and Pieces” movements evoked the sonorities of the balalaika (“Troika”), mandolin (“Neapolitan”), and, in the case of “Three Sharing,” the percussive sounds of knocking on the bodies of the pipa, the cello, and the bass. However, for all of that diversity, the instrumental accompaniment for the entire concerto was limited solely to the string section.

“Bits and Pieces” was followed by “Threnody for Richard Locke,” whose rhetoric is decidedly contemporary Western, after which the concerto closed by reflecting back on the Europe of the late Middle Ages with an “Estampie” movement. Only the opening Allegro seems to have been conceived the let this concerto be a concerto, so to speak. Nevertheless, the overall listening experience was a joyride through its wide diversity of styles and rhetorics; and Harrison was never shy about providing Wu with virtuoso challenges that would reinforce her reputation for mastering every detail of her instrument. Lest anyone dare to question that reputation by the end of the concerto, Wu turned to the more traditional repertoire for her encore, playing “White Snow in Spring.”

Harrison’s concerto was preceded by the one composition on the program by a Chinese composer Qigang Chen. “Luan Tan” (which can be translated as “chaotic music” or “random notes”) was written on a joint commission by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and Radio France; and it was given its world premiere by the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2015. Last night the China NCPA Orchestra gave the piece its first West Coast performance.

Whether or not Chen was inspired by the mathematics behind chaos theory in creating “Luan Tan,” it was clear that, through either calculation or intuition, he homed in on the abstraction of what might be called “absolute unpredictability.” The very opening gestures comes from a pair of temple blocks, which provocatively avoid establishing any sense of rhythm and emerge only as a series of punctuations, all of which seem to take place at unexpected moments. That rhetorical device then spreads over the entire ensemble, applying itself not only to subsequent punctuations but also to thematic lines, both those that churn around a small cluster of notes and those that arch their way over an extended melody, as uncertain in its origin as it is in its cadencing.

As absorbing was the music itself, just as absorbing was the very appearance of every member of the ensemble. Conductor and crew were all intensely focused on the meticulous detail that had gone into Chen’s score. The entire group clearly shared the understanding that this composition would “work” only if every individual knew exactly how to fit his/her part into the overall whole. Lü could not have been a better informed leader of this group, always aware of when to focus on a particular part and when to provide guidance for that overall whole.

This was the ensemble’s opening work. They certainly knew how to seize audience attention. Once they established command of it, those of us on the other side of the proscenium were ready for anything.

If the first half of the program provided a stimulating serving of modernism, the second half was devoted to the nineteenth century. The only work scheduled to be performed was Johannes Brahms Opus 98 (fourth) symphony in E minor. The performance made it clear that Lü understood nineteenth-century romanticism as firmly as he understood the last half-century of modernism. Furthermore, he made it clear that his appreciation of Brahms was just as passionate as his engagement with music from the more recent past.

Nevertheless, there seemed to be at least a bit of a problem with being too passionate about Brahms. Lü clearly wanted to savor every moment in each of the symphony’s four movements. However, that savoring never recognized the rhetorical requirement that each movement should be organized around a single climax, as should the symphony when considered in its entirety. To apply my favorite metaphor, there never seemed to be a sense of the peak that rose above all the others, neither in any single movement nor in the symphony as a whole. Thus, while the attentive listener could easily grasp the depth of Lü’s emotional engagement, there tended to be a lack of the overall direction according to which the score would navigate from one depth to another.

On the other hand Lü’s decision to take the orchestral version of the sixth of Brahms’ Hungarian dances as an encore managed quite well over its own brief duration. Indeed, there was almost a Looney Tunes quality in Lü’s madcap approach to racing from one theme to another. Yet, for all the familiarity of those themes, Lü knew exactly how to endow them with a unique freshness in his execution. He then followed up with more traditional Chinese music (presumably arranged for full orchestra), which clearly won over the hearts of the audiences as effectively as Wu’s encore had done.

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