Two soloists provide fireworks in Philharmonic’s Chinese New Year program

Wed Feb 10, 2016 at 12:33 pm
Maxim Vengerov performed the "Butterfly Lovers Concerto" with Long Yu conducting the New York Philharmonic Tuesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Maxim Vengerov performed the “Butterfly Lovers Concerto” with Long Yu conducting the New York Philharmonic Tuesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic’s fifth annual Chinese New Year celebration on Tuesday night was something of a riddle. On the one hand, there was a ninety-minute program with a sought-after violinist, a stage address from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and no intermission suggested an emphasis on providing entertainment for the gala patrons whose tables were being set on the promenade outside the hall.

On the other, the most substantial item on the program by far was the New York premiere of a forty-minute piece from the last decade that proved as artistically and intellectually stimulating as anything the Philharmonic might present on a regular subscription concert.

The first music of the evening was certainly more in the former spirit, like any good concert overture: Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture, composed in 1955-56, is a peculiar product of the early years of Western-style composing in China. Li’s darting melodies and galloping energy, combined with a Romantic idiom, almost conjure reminiscences of something between the American West and a Parisian Can-can. Under the direction of guest conductor Long Yu, the music was dignified, but not humorless.

More substantial, though opaque in its own way, was the famous The Butterfly Lovers, a violin concerto written jointly by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao just a few years after the Spring Festival Overture. The soloist on this occasion was Maxim Vengerov, who a decade ago was at the top of an intensely competitive field before an injury forced his career into hiatus. Technical problems, such as murky passagework and wandering intonation, linger, but the most attractive elements of Vengerov’s playing are the ones that always stood out: the effortless warmth of his tone and keen expression of his interpretation.

The Butterfly Lovers offered the violinist ample opportunity to demonstrate these two qualities. The concerto has its stretches of showy virtuosity, but at its core it is an innocently lyrical piece, lightly orchestrated and unassuming, its solo part taking inspiration from traditional Chinese instruments rather than Romantic violinistic flair. Vengerov’s interpretation was poignant, finding moments of intense passion in the gleaming lines without ever hurrying them

Less successful was Vengerov’s performance of the Kreisler chestnut Tambourin Chinois, a fleeting bonbon that served essentially as a programmed encore. A master of pastiche, Kreisler in this brief showpiece combines Chinese musical idiom with violinistic fireworks of considerable difficulty—too much  difficulty, apparently, for Vengerov, who rushed through the piece and failed to convey much its charm.

After the relative pleasantness of the first forty minutes, hearing Tan Dun’s The Secret Voices of Women was like stepping into an ice bath. Though the composer calls the piece a “Symphony for 13 Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra,” there are no microfilm readers called for in the score; rather, “microfilm” is his name for a series of short films he has captured and edited of women in rural China singing traditional Nu Shu songs, cataloguing folk melodies in danger of being lost. Around these, Tan Dun constructs what is essentially a harp concerto, drawing inspiration from the songs and echoing them in his writing for orchestra and soloist.

At times, the writing takes the form of a simple and comfortably harmonious accompaniment, whether in the form of light pizzicato and percussion or burnished strings. At others, the echoed vocal melody becomes a maddening refrain, dissolving into interludes of shivering ice or harrowing fury.

The video scenes themselves are emotionally affecting, portraying mostly elderly women in a variety of activities, projected in three different frames above the stage. One in particular shows a song of ritual mourning, accompanied by frantic worrying in the solo harp. The songs are presented without any English text, a choice that avoids distracting from either the images or the music. One feels that Tan Dun made the correct decision here, though undoubtedly many audience members missed a layer of the work  as a result.

The Philharmonic played brilliantly, sounding secure and powerful under Long Yu’s baton, and the performance of the solo part by the Philharmonic’s principal harpist, Nancy Allen, was exquisite. Tan Dun’s writing for harp is extremely demanding, not just in degree of difficulty, but in its length and relative continuity. More than equal to the technical challenges, Allen brought a strong voice to the varied solo line. Would that every gala concert left so strong an impression.

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