The New York Philharmonic offered a diverse and interesting program to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Kahchun Wong, winner of the 2016 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition and chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony, made his debut with the Philharmonic.
Appropriately, the concert opened with the Spring Festival Overture by Li Huanzh. It’s a celebratory piece based upon folk-dances from Shaanxi province in central China, with a tender, nostalgic middle section. The melodic complexion intermingles Oriental modes and phrases with Western musical styles. Wong was in command from the inception, as he was throughout the concert, delivering a spirited and well-conceived performance.
Tan Dun is arguably the most frequently performed composer from China. His immensely creative, exploratory and deeply moving Violin Concerto is based upon Chinese ritual and court music that is structured as a dialogue between a small ensemble (representing Humankind), sometimes including various instruments placed around the hall, and a larger, often more forceful (if not brutal) group (representing Nature), composed mostly of brass, low strings and percussion, the latter including three sets of large Chinese crash cymbals, four slapsticks, three Chinese drums, two flexatones, large cowbell, tubular bells, stones, and timpani that has a small cymbal played on the drumhead with a bow. The violinist functions as a prophetic intermediary.
The Concerto has four episodes – Cruel war; Innocent people; Birds in heaven; Eternity: written “to worship the innocent victims of war, to acknowledge the endless conflicts and sufferings in human history, and to pray for the eternal peace of the world.”
An extraordinary array of musical gestures, brief tantalizing figures, booming outbursts and moments of unearthly quietude configured by almost limitless permutations, instrumental combinations and spatial effects create an impressive accumulation of material. The work opens as theviolinist emerges from the back of the hall playing a long sustained D-natural (“re”). According to the composer, this note suggests “the REturn of souls and the REbirth of all victims of war so that they may RElive another life, and love once more.”
Only during the third movement and toward the close of the work does any sustained lyricism emerge in the violin, like a lullaby that longs for peace but is all too soon buried under a deluge of demonic brass. As the violin reaches upward, the timpani try with increasing force to bludgeon such efforts as the work ends. The power of this startling conclusion was devastating. Bomsori Kim gave an impressive performance and Wong conducted masterfully, giving the Concerto a powerful reading, fully in control of a complex and intricate score riddled with meticulously wrought detail.
So Young Park followed with a fine rendition of ‘Der Hölle Rache’. Park negotiated high notes and bel canto effects quite well. Her voice has steel-like brilliancy, although she was a bit shrill on top. Her rendition of the folksong, ‘Shin Arirang’, was both simpler and sweeter. The text in this updated version tells of the sorrow of workers who are forced to live separately from their wives and lovers in the nineteenth-century during the construction of the Gyeongbok Palace.
Wong gave a straightforward, sometimes strong and intense, but occasionally rigidified account of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. The conductor followed the score with care and tried to bring out some often glossed over inner voices to moderately successful effect. He evoked a hushed mysterious atmosphere in the opening section and propelled Kashchei’s ‘Infernal Dance’ and the final section with driving force and immense power. The concert concluded with Train Toccata, a brief piece by Liu Yuan. Combining Western techniques with elements of Eastern modality, the work depicts in graphic detail the propulsion of a locomotive, using a repetitive chugging rhythm embellished with various sound effects, such as a train whistle. For contrast, a slow middle section generates a prairie-like tune for violin and cello.