11/4 Saint Louis Symphony @ Carnegie Hall
Igor Stravinsky – Chant du rossignol
Tan Dun – Water Concerto
Bright Sheng – Colors of Crimson
Béla Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin Suite
David Robertson-Conductor, Colin Currie-Percussion
I decided to go to this concert because I was too intrigued not to go. The concert was part of Carnegie Hall’s recent series “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices,” celebrating Chinese music both traditional and recent. It featured two modern works by Chinese composers bookended by two older works by Western composers –obviously meant to showcase the depth of modern voices (yes, there is more to Chinese music than pentatonic scales!) while also showing the mythical and fantastical aspect of the West’s perceptions of China. The concert certainly provided food for thought, as well as an opportunity to hear a world class orchestra perform with skill and precision.
The first piece of the night was Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol, or Song of the Nightingale, a symphonic poem that tells the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, a fairytale set in China about an Emperor , a beautiful Nightingale and the mechanical bird that replaces it. Stravinsky was an evocative storyteller, and this piece is no different, with the various timbres of the orchestra effectively used to characterize the characters (a flute melody for the Nightingale, pompous horns for the Emperor.) The Saint Louis Symphony played wonderfully on this piece, enthusiastically bringing the story to life while displaying mastery of the difficult rhythms. The brass was especially impressive, with a clear and beautiful tone in solo passages and as a group. The low brass was particularly clear and avoided the murky sound that can frequently occur.
The second piece of the night, Tan Dun’s Water Concerto was the most novel. The work could be best described as a soundscape for orchestra and water sonorities. Instead of rolling a grand piano onstage, a large container of water and bowls on lighted stands were put centerstage. The percussionist, Colin Currie, used the water throughout the piece, running his hands through it, splashing with it, and submerging various other things in it to play (wooden bowls, gongs, cups etc.) The orchestra played an accompaniment that alternated between folk melodies with lush orchestral sounds and brass players percussively taping their mouthpieces and a strange melody reminiscent of children jeering that was produced using the mouthpieces of the brass and woodwinds (or something else; from the balcony I couldn’t really be sure.) The piece overall may not have been spectacular, but the sonorities of the water, in combination both with the orchestra and various other percussion instruments, were arresting. The juxtaposition of the sounds of someone bathing with runs in the violins was unique-a proposition that I hadn’t considered before. I think this juxtaposition spoke particularly to Tan Dun’s background both as a Chinese composer and as someone sent to the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A Western composer would not have thought to use water as the basis of a percussion concerto, nor created the effect of “river music.”
After intermission, Colin Currie returned to play the marimba in Bright Sheng’s Colors of Crimson, a concerto for marimba and orchestra. In the program the composer declared his goal to be to balance out the monotimbre of the marimba with a variety of orchestration, thus creating “colors of crimson.” Although the lack of timbre remained apparent, there was a variety of soloing and accompaniment; at times the marimba played a simple melody over a lush string background, while at other times complex conflicts between the orchestra and the marimba seemed to erupt. Of all the pieces of the night, this piece evoked the most real version of China. I could see a country that was more than a fairytale land of pagodas and rivers-it was one that had gone through a Cultural Revolution and torn itself apart, and was slowly trying to piece itself together, trying to find a new identity in our modern world, though conflicting with itself. The thematic folk song material Bright Sheng used was reminiscent of Bartok-vividly used, but never clichéd-an evocation of a China both past and present.
The concert closed with Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, a macabre work of, to quote the program, “lurid Expressionism.” Based on Bartók’s ballet of the same name, the piece tells the story of a young woman forced by three thieves to lure victims to their death. Her third victim is the mysterious Mandarin, who chases her, is wounded by the thieves, but does not bleed until the woman kisses him, whereupon he dies in “an ecstatic love-death.” The piece is lurid and dark, a picture of a fantastically horrible underworld. The St. Louis Symphony played with gusto, evocative and brutal by turns, until the devastating climax. David Robertson was called back three times, and the audience showed its appreciation for the effort of the Saint Louis Symphony.
The concert provided an interesting outlet to address one’s perceptions of China, with four different portraits-the magical fantasy land of old, the lurid opium den of the past, the more modern countryside, and the China of the present. I think it would have been more interesting if the pieces had been presented in chronological order of composition, which would have shown the development of perceptions of China, but the inquiry was effective nonetheless. It left me wondering what new direction China might turn in the future.
Kudos to David Robertson, Colin Currie, and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for a job well done on some challenging pieces. Not being familiar with the SLSO, their polished sound was a welcome delight.
Until next time!
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