As I listened to Chen Qigang’s Er Huang Piano Concerto the other night, performed by the New Jersey Symphony (NJS) with pianist Chelsea Guo at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, a memory arose.
I was a young piano student in the 1970s when my mother and I heard something unprecedented on the radio. A pianist from China was playing music by Chopin.
While he played all the notes correctly, my mother, once an aspiring concert pianist, remarked that the pianist seemed to have no feel for the music’s romanticism, no understanding of the feeling behind it. Even at my young age I could sense that she was right.
President Nixon had only recently made his historic visit to China. Political and cultural connections between China and the U.S. were in their infancy; Chinese and American musicians had barely begun to discover one another’s traditions.
At Alice Tully Hall I was reminded once again how much has changed. Half a century on, with political tensions running high, it feels important to take note of the tremendous flowering of cultural exchange and artistic interconnection that has occurred over the nearly 50 years since that radio broadcast.
China Arts and Entertainment Group is among the organizations fostering cultural exchange between China and Western nations. On July 20 it presented the New Jersey Symphony in “Image China,” an “East/West Symphonic Concert” featuring music and musicians from China and the U.S. The conductor and NJS’s music director, Maestra Xian Zhang, and both concerto soloists, pianist Chelsea Guo and violinist Nancy Zhou (see our recent interview with Ms. Zhou) are all of Chinese heritage.
The evening’s most tumultuous applause came near the end, a well-deserved reaction to Ms. Zhou’s impressive solo turn in Zhao Jiping’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
The high point for me, though, was the Er Huang Piano Concerto. This single-movement work shines with sophisticated majesty, a fully consonant marriage of Eastern modes and Western orchestral colors. Ms. Guo’s shimmering piano work and an organically simpatico performance by the NJS served it wonderfully.
I had very much enjoyed Chopin in My Voice, Ms. Guo’s debut album – Chopin-centered, though she also demonstrates her soprano vocal skills – when it came out last year. So I knew she had a sensitive touch, and looked forward to hearing Qigang’s concerto. It begins with a sequence of questioning tone clusters from the piano. A low-register, almost imperceptible bass viol hum sneaks in as accompaniment. The piano theme builds and develops, with an occasional jazzy interval, as the orchestra joins in.
For some time the pace remains deliberate, with enough circling back that it put me in mind of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. Perhaps it’s the fact that the themes are based on melodies from Peking operas that makes its abstractions feel so vivid.
The piano part lopes over the keyboard’s whole range; Ms. Guo drew a marvelous clear tone in every register, whether in rapid virtuosic runs or in conversational dialogues with the orchestra. Xian Zhang’s formidable interpretive skills were fully in evidence as the ensemble took on the integrity of a single instrument.
Modern symphonic music from China sometimes sounds made-to-order, designed to convey specific images and emotions while avoiding anything that might disturb or challenge. This concerto breaks that mold. It’s complex, surprising, even iconoclastic. From that quiet bass drone at the start, through sequences of imagistic drama, to the sneaky-sweet interplay of piano, celeste and percussion toward the end, it captivates. After this superb performance by Chelsea Guo and the New Jersey Symphony I couldn’t help thinking it ought to become a staple of the Western repertoire.
I found Zhao Jiping’s single-movement Violin Concerto less interesting, though Maestra Zhang and soloist Nancy Zhou did not falter in making a case for it. The striking opening violin theme ends with a delicate high harmonic, but Ms. Zhou produced a full, confident sound throughout, resonant especially in her instrument’s lower register.
The opening section set us squarely in the Romantic tradition, indeed shading into cliché. But in turn came a sprightly dance that deepened into an insistent statement; a songlike return to romance; and a roguish rhythmic section. The crowd-pleasing violin cadenza leading to the big finish called for a whole bank of techniques that made Ms. Zhao’s prowess very clear.
Guest musicians merged Chinese instruments with the orchestra’s traditional Western ones in two evocative pieces written for Chinese opera and dance-drama companies and collectively billed as the Image China Suite. “Soaring Wings” by Guo Sida first calls on delicate bells and harp to aptly describing the crested ibis, the “bird of good fortune.” The musicians performed with refinement as a folk-style theme expanded; it was easy to imagine dancers embodying a nature scene and the graceful bird. “Confucius” by Zhang Qu also began delicately, then opened up into a stately, indeed grand march conjuring the legendary scholar’s literal and philosophic journeys.
Aaron Copland’s equally imagistic Appalachian Spring fit nicely into the program. This music too was originally composed for dancers, in this case a ballet. The NJS gave a crisp and full-bodied, indeed dance-worthy performance, putting together Copland’s joyous musical jigsaw puzzle neatly and with assurance. I was especially taken with the orchestra’s rendition of the quiet prayer that follows the best-known section (based on the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts”).
In the classical music context, it’s hard to get more “American” than Copland. So “Image China” came to take on a double meaning: a picture of (mostly) Chinese music today, and an image of one nation looking in a mirror and seeing the other as its reflection. The concert ended with tenor Yongzhao Yu and soprano Esther Maureen Kelly duetting on the traditional Chinese “Song of Yangtze River” and a surprise exemplar of Western opera: the “Brindisi” from La Traviata. Water and wine both flow, whatever country you’re in.