Taiwan contains within its 13,826 square miles approximately 30 aboriginal tribes, all with distinct languages and cultures. Conquest, colonialism and the Kuomintang’s one-party authoritarian rule diluted and even suppressed those traditions, which have only recently become the focus of serious efforts at documentation and preservation. The landslide victory of the Democratic Progressive Party – dedicated, amongst other things, to promoting the island’s Taiwanese identity – motivated Chihchun Chi-sun Lee to make her Boston Symphony Orchestra commission, Formosan Triptych, a colorful celebration of her island’s aboriginal music.

Composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee with Yu-An Chang and the BSO © Robert Torres
Composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee with Yu-An Chang and the BSO
© Robert Torres

The triptych’s three movements are each in the style of one of those tribes: the Bunun’s eight-part microtonal chant, the Pasi but but; the folk songs and chantefable narratives of the Hok-lo and the hill songs and highly percussive, eight-instrument ba-yin genre of the Hakka. Traditional percussion instruments like the Formosan Ocean Drum and the tanggu (a small drum) were shipped to Boston and Lee asked western instruments to play in unorthodox ways to evoke traditional singing styles and instrumental sounds. Literal translation was never her aim. Rather she strove to express impressionistically the characteristics of each genre (for the most part vocal, not instrumental) through purely instrumental means and in her own syncretic voice.

Lee begins the first movement with muted trombones and tuba creating a soft drone. Microtonal fluxes overlap and intertwine creating a pulsing mass of sound reminiscent of Ligeti. Strings chime in. Woodwinds and brass produce multiphonics with the brass humming as they play, adding timbre and color and a hint of the vocal aspects of the Pasi but but. The much more melodic second movement sings the natural splendor of Taiwan with English horn, oboe and bassoon establishing a pastoral tone, then the Ocean drum and the French horn and tuba, simply blowing air through their instruments voicing the sighing of surf and wind. String glissandos and tremolos add a La mer-like ebb and flow. In the third movement, the orchestra becomes a chattering percussive ensemble. Instruments are slapped, popped, struck as well as played. A wheezing, clanging steampunk accelerando comically approximates a rickety locomotive before the movement comes to a quiet close. Taiwan-born assistant conductor Yu-An Chang was a marvel of clarity, expression and precision. Though 4/4 is the dominant meter, tricky fluctuations abound. Pencil thin, Chang’s long arms shaped and propelled the three episodes in a relaxed, expansive flow. You could see what you were hearing in his beat.

Yu-An Chang and Till Fellner with the BSO © Robert Torres
Yu-An Chang and Till Fellner with the BSO
© Robert Torres

The first half closed with Chang and pianist Till Fellner collaborating in a lucid, elegant classical interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25. Fellner seemed to exhale each movement in one long breath. Probing, thoughtful and meticulous, he adopted his teacher Alfred Brendel’s cadenza, more a meditation on the themes introduced than a display of virtuosity. Chang and Fellner paced the Allegretto broadly revealing an unexpected lyrical quality in what is usually a typical Mozart romp.

Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony is not as taut as the symphonies which follow. It can seem discursive and verbose. Brisk tempi helped avoid those pitfalls but sometimes created problems of their own, depriving the symphony as a whole of an expressive arc. But, to be fair, in this symphony Tchaikovsky himself seems uncertain about exactly what he’s saying. The final two movements were the most successful: the fourth displaying a Mendelssohnian lilt and lightness and the fifth accelerating the tension to a febrile conclusion.

Both Chang and Lee were making Symphony Hall debuts. We should be hearing more from both in the future.