Composer Portrait – Chen Yi

Chen Yi
Duo Ye
As in a Dream
Qi [UK premiere]

Chen Yi in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Chen Yi (soprano)
Musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Prom 41

Dukas
Polyeucte – Overture
Chen Yi
Percussion Concerto [European premiere]
Ravel
Daphnis et Chloë

Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier
The relatively recent introduction of Composer Portraits to the Proms is an innovative and welcome idea. An opportunity to meet the composer and hear some chamber music in the intimate setting of the V & A’s Lecture Theatre. If there’s one drawback, it is perhaps that four a season are not enough!
This one with Chen Yi (born 1953) introduced a lively personality who retains her Chinese ancestry but seems to perceive it from a Western standpoint. Duo Ye, for piano, ably dispatched by Helen Reid, is a folk-dance Americanised, Chen Yi a tourist in her native country, here with a Gershwin-like shuffle and the brittle virtuosity of early Carter and Sessions. As in a Dream featured the composer as singer, with violin and cello, which sets ancient Chinese poetry. Less effective, the particular delivery demanded of Peking Opera, although authentic, reminded of the speech-song in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Similarly in the second movement of the Percussion Concerto, when Evelyn Glennie is required to ’sing’ in nationalistic tones, while playing; the effect suggested Ligeti’s Aventures. Add in Lutosławski’s ’conflict and resolve’ process from the Third Symphony, which seems to permeate the concerto’s finale.
Closing the Portrait was Qi, for flute/piccolo, cello, piano and percussion. Apart from overdosing on small dustbin-lid-sounding cymbals to a gratuitous degree, Qi is a very effective 10-minute piece of nature-impressionism, the sketch-like designs integrated into a whole, the sounds compelling and intriguing.
Of Chen Yi’s Percussion Concerto in the main Prom, well, having Glennie’s instruments illuminated was immediately irritating. Apart from being unnecessary and distracting, and nothing to do with listening, there are some people averse to crude colours and bright lights. “Naff,” to borrow an overheard comment. I shut my (becoming sore) eyes. The piece itself has economy on its side. It lasts 20 minutes, and is effective rhythmically and atmospherically – and reasonably entertaining. However, percussion concertos can be melodic and expressive – musical – as Joe Duddell showed earlier in the season.
For this Prom, it was Leonard Slatkin out, Yan Pascal Tortelier in. Tortelier jettisoned Samuel Barber’s Medea for Paul Dukas’s Polyeucte. The Greeks were one down before the concert even started. Dukas’s extremely self-critical stance left us but a handful of works. Beyond The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, there is an excellent Symphony, La Péri is a lovely work and the large-scale Piano Sonata is worth exploring. One imagines that Dukas kept faith with Polyeucte, based on the Roman official fated by love and religion, because of its fastidious crafting. It is termed an overture; it is more a symphonic poem, Lisztian in design and owing much to Wagner, especially Tristan. It was good to hear Polyeucte, especially in this fine performance.
If Daphnis complete has a problem, it is the potential longeurs in the first scene. Tortelier kept things moving to advantage – the pulse was healthy and satisfied both ’stage directions’ and the score’s sheer musicality. For all Tortelier’s graphic conducting style, the aural results were articulate and refined. The ’big’ moments weren’t pushed or over-showy, and a lot of work had been put into balance, smooth blends and expression. Some parts seemed less well worked though, and there were a few errant moments. The full-strength BBC Symphony Chorus looked too many, but sounded fine. Daniel Pailthorpe’s flute solo was especially beautiful. I wonder if Tortelier’s seamless, lively and considered rendition might make him a dark horse in the BBCSO Chief Conductor Stakes?

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 22 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

 

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