EDMOND — While many aspects of contemporary Chinese life remain a mystery to most Americans, one can't help but notice how the Asian nation has embraced classical music. Pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li, along with composers Chen Yi and Tan Dun, have all achieved significant acclaim in the West.
Armstrong Auditorium recently welcomed the China National Symphony Orchestra to Edmond as part of its 2012-13 concert series for a concert featuring two western classics paired with a work written by a Chinese composer in commemoration of the 2008 earthquake that devastated the Sichuan province.
Principal guest conductor En Shao opened the concert with an excerpt from Xia Guan's “Earth Requiem,” an elegiac movement that featured fine use of a string choir. As other instruments joined the fray, the work built to a dramatic climax before subsiding.
Violinist Chuanyun Li emphasized the gypsy nature of the Sibelius “Violin Concerto” but as the work progressed, he took more and more interpretive liberties that ultimately undermined the composer's intent.
Li clearly never met a rubato he didn't take a fancy to, often stretching melodic passages to such lengths that Shao had frequent difficulties keeping the orchestra and soloist together. Li's tone was warm and had little trouble projecting but The concerto's drama quickly turned into melodrama.
In the finale, Li's playing became even more mannered, an approach that marked him as a renegade without the musicality or interpretive choices to back that up. He chose Paganini's 24th “Caprice” as an encore, a showpiece that spiraled into an embarrassingly vulgar display.
Without the constraints of accompanying a soloist, Shao demonstrated that his Beijing-based orchestra has much to recommend it. Rachmaninoff's “Symphony No. 2 in E Minor” was the concert's finale and Shao's conception of this lengthy and dramatic work was solid and compelling.
There was a finesse to the ensemble's playing and some careful balancing of orchestral textures. But Rachmaninoff's best known symphony is filled with climaxes both subtle and shattering, each of which was hampered by Armstrong's dry acoustics. This is music that first and foremost has to bloom.
Those acoustical deficiencies also tended to make the orchestra capable of achieving a fine blend sound more like a group of soloists. The woodwinds usually projected adequately but the brass often sounded like they were playing in an adjacent room.
The second movement, a fast-paced Allegro, had many lovely nuances, while Shao's handling of the Adagio, a movement that features one of Rachmaninoff's most gorgeous romantic melodies, unfolded with heartfelt longing.
The symphony's finale should almost literally raise the roof given the composer's remarkable orchestration, but once again, the hall kept too tight a lid on the proceedings. Still, Shao and his orchestra did right by this repertoire, both conceptually and in performance. I'd love to hear what they could accomplish in a more flattering acoustic.
— Rick Rogers