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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


R. Strauss, Chen Yi, Chen Gang/He Zhanhao: Yo-Yo Ma (Cello), Gil Shaham (Violin), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui, Music Director and Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, March 2, 2005 (BH)

Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20
Chen Yi: Ballad, Dance, and Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra (2003) (New York Premiere)
Chen Gang / He Zhanhao: Concerto for Violin, “The Butterfly Lovers” (1959)
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59

Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra offered an enthusiastically presented program to an even more enthusiastic house, with two bona fide stars to wow the crowd, and the strategy generally worked. It should be noted that the orchestra seems a youngish one, with many of the players looking fresh out of college, and if the group lacks the last word in drop-dead crispness, it more than compensates for it with spirit and sheer guts. Perfection in execution goes a long way, but ardor for the music goes even further.

Let’s get to the juiciest material first: Chen Yi’s imaginative Ballad, Dance and Fantasy, commissioned by California’s Pacific Symphony, who first performed it with Yo-Yo Ma. Mr. Ma can sometimes seem to be overextended with his ambitious slate of projects, but tonight his passionate playing reminded me why he is one of the world’s great artists. The mesmerizing first movement begins with an arresting solo passage, while the orchestra mysteriously enters with faint, softly chanted syllables from the players in the rear, as the strings scurry up and down in tiny runs far in the background, all pianissimo. The second movement, more traditional in its use of Chinese folk songs, seems slightly more prosaic, but is notable for some duets for cello and a single bongo, the drummer placed next to Mr. Ma. But in the finale the composer’s ear perks up again, presenting some of the first movement’s ideas in a different guise. The last few minutes arrive at an enormous plateau for the entire orchestra, before the quiet chanting returns. Commentators chronicling widespread disinterest in contemporary music – an erroneous conclusion at best – should have been present to see and hear the gratifyingly large response, as the composer rushed up to the stage, shook hands with Mr. Shui and turned to beam her thanks at the crowd.

The Butterfly Lovers, jointly conceived by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, needs some historical context to be fully appreciated. Written during a period of Chinese suppression of “decadent” ideas from the West, it was banned by the government and lay dormant until 1977, when it emerged as the most popular piece by any Chinese composer. Based on a traditional Chinese folk story of doomed lovers ultimately resurrected as butterflies, the musical language resembles Wieniawski mixed with Bruch, perhaps if the two had a well-mannered child dressed in a pentatonic scale. Its broad themes are immediately likeable, and if in places it recycles some of them too often, it was still easy to enjoy, especially in the ultra-confident hands of Gil Shaham. (Mr. Shaham has recorded this work with the orchestra, which will be released in June.) Playing superbly and from memory, he offered consistently ingratiating tone and technique that was commendably understated – very effective. And a special mention for the orchestra’s outstanding flutist, Jin Ta, whose evocative playing gave definition to the work’s colors.

The opening Don Juan was exciting in execution, if a bit foursquare in concept, and for all the group’s enthusiasm, some of the climaxes approached shrillness. Mr. Shui, for all his obvious passion for the score (and conducting impressively from memory), didn’t quite draw out that Straussian long line as much as I might like, and a few minor quibbles with the orchestral execution occasionally drew me out of the performance. However, by the final Rosenkavalier Suite, the group and its magnetic leader seemed to have relaxed a bit and were able to have a bit of fun. Some bewitching work from the strings, especially the first violins, anchored a performance that had the audience cheering again as it reached its dramatic end. Again leading without a score, Shui seemed more comfortable handling the tide of gracefully majestic waltzes, and his eager musicians plunged into the spray headfirst.

The crowd roared at the end almost like rock groupies, and stayed put until Shui announced two encores: an irresistible Straussiana by Korngold, and a thundering gallop called Good News by Ma-Zheng.

Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)