Monday, December 5, 2016

The China Philharmonic Orchestra Fares Best with Chinese Music

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the China Philharmonic Orchestra returned for its third visit made possible through the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. As on the last two occasions, in 2005 and 2011, the ensemble was led by its founding Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Long Yu. This visit was part of the 2016 Tour of the Americas, marking the third time the group has toured the United States.

The program followed the usual overture-concerto-symphony format with the concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Opus 15 piano concerto in C major, and the symphony by Antonín Dvořák, Opus 95 (“From the New World”) in E minor. Only the overture represented the music of a living Chinese composer (born in Shanghai and now dividing his time between Paris and Beijing), Qigang Chen. Born in 1951, Chen is a survivor of the Cultural Revolution and was one of the first students to matriculate at the Central Conservatory in Beijing when it reopened in 1977. His performance there earned him a scholarship to study abroad; and he used it to move to Paris, where he studied privately with Olivier Messiaen for four years.

Last night’s program began with Chen’s “Enchantements oubliés” (forgotten enchantments), commissioned by Radio France in 2004 and first performed by the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France in January of 2008 under the baton of Alan Gilbert. The music is scored for a large string session, a generous variety of percussion instruments, harp, and a keyboardist alternating between piano and celesta. Chen exploits the large number of string players by dividing them into a variety of groups of different sizes, ranging from solos to subsections within the usual five sections. While the score frequently establishes thick textures of distinctively different thematic lines, those textures are almost always spread out spatially across the physical layout. This means that the sonorities can be both tightly woven and transparent at the same time; and the opening five minutes of “Enchantements oubliés” definitely live up to the semantics of the title, showering the ear with some of the most enchanting sonorities to come out of a string section.

Much of that enchantment can be attributed to the timelessness of the listening experience. Yu may have been coordinating his players with a keen sense of both pulse and tempo. However, on the listening side the effect was one of gradually changing patterns of sound, each one dissolving into the next. Unfortunately, the spell was broken when Chen decided that it was time to establish a more concrete sense of rhythm. From that point until the conclusion of this quarter-hour piece, strings and percussion lumbered their way through the far less enchanting clichéd banalities than have not been encountered in such abundance since the days of Howard Hanson’s symphonies at their most overwrought. It almost seemed as if Chen was overtaken with the desire to provide the listener with “something that sounded more like music” without fully appreciating just how musical his “enchanting” sense of stillness could be.

As a result, from the middle of “Enchantements oubliés” to the conclusion of the program, the entire performance steadily devolved into a more-is-better aesthetic that offered little to the attentive listener. Such listeners knew they were in trouble when they saw that all those string players required for Chen’s piece were on stage to play for twelve-year-old pianist Serena Wang’s performance of the Beethoven concerto. It was as if Yu failed to recognize that this was music involving as delicate balance as one could find in the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, Beethoven seems to have taken his cue for the non-string parts from some of Mozart’s later concertos, one flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, and timpani. However, what could have been an elegant texture of winds and brass instead involved those players struggling to be heard and often losing the struggle in the process.

Wang, on the other hand, did not have to struggle. Her age and diminutive size belied her capacity for intensity in attacking the keyboard, making for one of the most aggressive approaches to Opus 15 to go on the books. The problem, of course, is that, having survived the bad old days of overly aggressive Beethoven conductors (name you own favorite poison), contemporary listeners are better equipped to appreciate when Beethoven could call for a light touch and then float it just a little bit higher with a few turns of wit. Needless to say, any sense of wit was totally absent from the efforts of both Wang and Yu, resulting in a reading that had more to do with Kaspar von Zumbusch’s scowling Beethoven Monument than with an ambitious newbie still trying to one-up the high spirits of his former teacher Joseph Haydn.

If such an overloaded approach to Beethoven was hard to take, one would have thought that the vigorously dramatic rhetoric of Dvořák’s Opus 95 would have been more in the ensemble’s comfort zone. Sadly, this was not the case. While it was true that there was more to the performance than alternations between loud and louder, problems of balance were just as great as they had been in the Beethoven concerto. Indeed, there were several moments when key thematic elements were buried beneath secondary parts that happened to be louder. Difficulties were further enhanced by audible problems with intonation that were probably more evident in a symphony setting than they were when a piano was at hand to provide a more solid standard. The result was that both of the “familiar classics” of the evening foundered due to an extreme weakness of many of the fundamental technical nuts and bolts.

Both Wang and the ensemble took encores after the concerto and symphony, respectively. These were short Chinese pieces that may have been familiar to many in the audience but not to this listener. Wang’s encore had an almost naïve simplicity that suited her much better than her efforts to pound out Beethoven. The post-symphony encore was played only by the strings, thus recalling at least a bit of the enchantment that had provided such a promising start to the evening.

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