Philharmonia Orchestra Music of Today

Chinese Opera

Philharmonia Orchestra
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 October, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The new season of Music of Today recitals, the sixth under the artistic direction of Julian Anderson, got underway at this free, early-evening concert. The season is a diverse and imaginative one, and it can hardly be Anderson’s fault that these programmes as a whole are not more closely tied into the Philharmonia Orchestra concerts that follow.

The focus here was on Peter Eötvös, the Hungarian composer-conductor who has been a frequent visitor to London for over two decades. Just one work was heard, though Chinese Opera can claim to be a breakthrough in several respects. Completed in 1986 (having been conceived a decade earlier) and premiered by Ensemble InterContemporain – of whom Eötvös was then Music Director – that year, it is Eötvös’s first mature orchestral piece: one whose harmonic and textural preoccupations were to be refined and extended over the years and works ahead. As initially presented (not least in a South Bank concert by Ensemble Modern in 1987), it consisted of three main sections separated bytwo shorter sections that offset the expressive intensity as might ‘comic’ interludes that break up the ‘tragic’ plays in Asiatic theatre. Latterly, however, Eötvös has opted to present just the main sections – making a 26-minute triptych that functions well as a three-movement chamber concerto.

Each of the three ‘scenes’ is dedicated to a famous director, and each unfolds around the interplay of two notes having some of the functions of ‘tonal centres’ in earlier twentieth-century music. Despite this, Chinese Opera is not remotely operatic as such: in his opening remarks, Eötvös commented that it draws on characteristics of the medium – every Chinese province has its own style of theatre – so the present work is an instrumental and abstract opera “from within my own province.”

Eötvös conducted a performance that made the most of the music’s vast array of timbres and deft antiphonal exchanges (the ‘stereophonic’ orchestra divided into two identical ensembles placed left and right, with a group of amplified instruments in the centre). The use of tuned percussion to evoke indigenous associations, without descending into facile chinoiserie, was equally persuasive and the tonal follow-through of the music was made the more apparent as the work unfolded – even though the inclusion of those interludes would have opened-out the expressive range even more appreciably.

What was never in doubt was the sheer inventiveness and resource of Eötvös’s musical imagination: remarkable that, when this work first appeared, he was just at the beginning of a trajectory that has since taken him to the forefront of contemporary composition – his operas (“Three Sisters”, “Le Balcon”, “Angels in America”) as significant a contribution to the genre as any in recent years. A new stage-work is due to be premiered at Glyndebourne next summer, and hopefully many of those who heard his work for the first time this evening will have been motivated to hear more of this remarkable music.

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