To celebrate the arrival of the Chinese Year of the Pig, Elim Chan, Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chief Conductor Designate of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic with energetic efficiency through a high-powered program of Chinese and French music that began and ended with virtuoso showpieces written less than 30 years apart.

Ray Chen © John Mac
Ray Chen
© John Mac

The main attraction was the world premiere of an LA Phil commission, Du Yun's 17-minute Thirst, a highly-stylized musical theater piece in the tradition of Xinchang Diaoqiang Opera which lasted for five centuries, in which the composer immersed herself beginning in 2017. Delivered with a palette of exquisite expressive gestures and seamless singing by both of the costumed singers, Du Yun's adaptation of an ancient form married to modern freedoms revealed subtleties and flexibilities of form that suggested Monteverdi more than Puccini – although the emotions that lay beneath the music felt viscerally intense.

This third piece in Du Yun's Future Tradition, Revamping Disappearing Folk Arts and Regional Operas in China initiative, dealt elegantly and sadly with how gender identification issues among actors reflect society's cultural differences and how they affect basic human relationships. Introduced by the Phil with blazing brass over moaning strings, Wang Ying as the old man and Zhang Tingfang as the young one in an elaborate dance, told a story through contrasting musical and choreographic styles, the one more colorful, more purely gorgeous, and the other more abstract, spiritually ascendant. It was a good piece to know, and would be for a second time. Let's hope the Phil doesn't wait for the next Chinese New Year program to play it again.

The soloist for the night was Ray Chen who in both Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Ravel's Tzigane was his usual adventurous, exhilarating self. He often took a stand like a prize fighter before ripping into a particularly juicy spot and he vanquished the iconic technical challenges with such physical energy and swing that a friend thought he looked like Elvis. With the Phil getting deeply into Ravel's more sultry mood, Chen's Tzigane was particularly hyper-dramatic and thrilling, and everybody even got to the end at just about the same time.

Li Huanzhi's Spring Festival Overture from 1955, which kicked off the concert, is a typically cheerful and industrious result of Mao's cultural policies, ironically said to have been influenced by a folk music legacy which was being actively eradicated at the time. Four years later, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao would write a Chinese-tinged confection called Butterfly Lover's Violin Concerto which in the 1970s would become a huge hit and, like other music by Chinese composers at the time, became a symbol of the country's pride. A recording of Spring Festival Overture was sent into space with China’s first moon probe in 2007, along with Ode to the Yellow River and The East Is Red. After two innocuous lollipops, a Bolero that started out with elegant woodwind solos and a wonderfully seductive pace, brought the concert to a close accompanied by wild applause.


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