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Shanghai Symphony explores Eastern, Western traditions.

Byline: John Zeugner


All kudos to the Shanghai Symphony's musical grit - a debut concert at Carnegie Hall Tuesday night, and the very next night they turn up in Worcester at Mechanics Hall, summoned here by Music Worcester Inc., ever-canny at booking what's hot in the classical universe.

On the other hand, given music director and conductor Long Yu's legendary martinet nature, fear-driven grit is more or less automatic among his musicians.

If the myriad auditions Yu's various orchestras have posted in past years on that bulletin board of all professional musicians are any indication, in Yu's world you get on the bus or you're thrown under it.

The New York Times critic said the orchestra's work was "nuanced" and complained that superstar pianist Lang Lang in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto was too unbuttoned and over the top.

In Worcester, a very svelte, very attractive young pianist, Yuja Wang, radiant in a long purple/puce gown, replaced Lang Lang and easily matched his technical wizardry. She's indeed a pianist of both nuance and thunder, tossing off dazzling runs, whiplash low notes and clearly emphasizing melodic lines through the clouds of sound. There were unbuttoned aspects of the Worcester performance too: a running battle between pianist and orchestra over tempi in the first and third movement; a disappointing timeout between them for the adagio second movement, in which both sides more or less agreed to phone in a very automatic run-through.

But the basic problem wasn't performance, it was the music itself. Rachmaninoff's 2nd is the worst sort of maudlin musical dreck whose notes and trillions of performances ought to be sealed in a lead canister and fired directly into the center of the sun. Of course that won't happen, so long as there are dentist offices and elevators in the land.

The great gift of this concert came after the intermission - a chance to hear contemporary composer Qigang Chen's fascinating meditation on the nature of women, "Iris devoillee" (Iris uncovered) written in 2001-02. Chen, who composed the music for the mammoth opening of the summer Olympics in Beijing, recently has fused traditional Western tonal composition with the alien (at least to Westerners) tones of Chinese instruments and operatic vocals.

To illustrate what he called "the inexhaustible" nature of women, Chen in this nine-movement piece puts in front of the orchestra five gorgeous young women in traditional Chinese brilliantly-colored, long, split gowns, with three of them playing Chinese instruments - erhu, pipa, and guzheng respectively (stringed instruments for bowing or plucking) - and two of them vocalists, Xiaduo Chen (Western operatic soprano) and Meng Meng (Chinese operatic soprano).

The range of these vocalists is mind-boggling.

In the third piece, "Libertine," they forge into a duet, in which Chen displays "Magic Flute" Queen of the Night pyrotechnics while Meng explores Chinese tonality that seems the nether side of screech or steroid-enhanced electronic whine.

By the end, you realize there is an infinity to music's possibilities. The eighth piece, "Hysteria," literally begins with a sustained, startling matched pair of screams. The orchestra throughout plays a muted, soft-tone accompanying role, with occasional brilliant brass work.

The effect is at once exhausting and riveting for the audience, which in absorbing and applauding the composition displayed its own considerable musical grit.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 13, 2009
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