Pianist Zhang provides the highlights with China NCPA Orchestra

Tue Oct 31, 2017 at 12:52 pm
Haochen Zhang performed the "Yellow River" Concerto with the China NCPA Orchestra Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: B Ealovega

Haochen Zhang performed the “Yellow River” Concerto with the China NCPA Orchestra Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: B Ealovega

There’s a battle-tested formula for visiting international orchestras: when a Russian orchestra comes to Carnegie Hall, you can safely bet on hearing Russian music, with a fiery Russian soloist. The China NCPA (National Center for the Performing Arts) Orchestra took a similar tack with their program on Monday night.

A major hitch came when Lang Lang, the flashy megastar of concert pianists, had to withdraw—a hand injury has been holding him out of concerts since before the hall’s season opener, at which he played only the right-hand part of Rhapsody in Blue, in a bizarre arrangement for three pianists.

There were, thankfully, no such shenanigans for the NCPA’s concert. Instead, Monday’s audience had an opportunity to hear an incandescent performance of the Yellow River Concerto by a rising artist. Twenty-seven-year-old Haochen Zhang has racked up significant accolades already, including the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition and, this year, an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Monday’s performance did not disappoint, showing signs of a promising solo career.

A noted arrangement of Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata, the concerto has an immediate melodic appeal, taking a classical Chinese subject and musical ideas and working into a Western musical form. There are more than a few echoes of Rachmaninoff in the piece, with its lush orchestral writing and its blazing solo part, right down to the torrential volley of triplet chords in “Defend the Yellow River,” the last movement.

Zhang’s technique was exemplary, and he showed keen musical sense and a gorgeous touch right from the opening flourish of “Yellow River Boatmen’s Song.” The second movement, “Ode to the Yellow River,” was especially sumptuous; the orchestra traced the rich sonic arches of the score beautifully, while Zhang played the solo part with remarkable freedom, showing a fond familiarity in his approach to the piece’s melodies.

The concert’s opener was the American premiere of Luan Tan by Qigang Chen–a virtuosic piece, though not an easy one to swallow. It opens with shadowy foreboding, as dramatic whispers of temple blocks set out the rhythmic motif that forms the center of the work. Carefree titters in the winds join the fray, followed by a tarantella-like figure in the strings. This is not an easy score, but it was accomplished with admirable precision by the NCPA, under the baton of music director Lü Jia.

As Luan Tan opens up into a shining, spacious polyphony, it builds excitement and manages to sustain it for a while, but never develops a firm sense of purpose. Heavy on effects and light on substance, Luan Tan largely fits the mold of a concert overture, except that it stretches on for more than twenty minutes. There is an inescapable resemblance to Boléro—an extended meditation on a rhythmic subject, carried beyond its breaking point.

On visiting programs like these, there always has to be a major piece to show off the visiting orchestra’s capability as an instrument. Monday’s was the Second Symphony of Sibelius, a richly composed work that can be stirring when given with conviction.

In their performance the NCPA showed themselves to be a polished orchestra, but Jia’s reading failed to create much excitement. After an impressive start of full, round sonic pulses, the rest of the Allegretto proceeded haltingly—lacking a feeling of forward motion, the first movement was mostly a display of colorful textures.

The Tempo andante felt more focused, yet still lacked dramatic flair until its last bars. Evidence of real energy finally surfaced in the scherzo, pairing a gleaming sound and a hint of roughness with thick, lush warmth in the trio sections.

Alas, that spirit didn’t last long; the transition into the Finale seemed to stretch on and on, and the NCPA’s playing thereafter featured strong dynamic variety without much articulation, so that the blooming crests thrilled, while the lulls in between fell flat. In what ought to be a rousing, heroic finish, the players of the NCPA, for all their polish, were so restrained as to sound almost disinterested.


Leave a Comment