Last night's China Philharmonic concert at Davies Symphony Hall held great promise with a program that featured the performance of Serena Wang – just 12 years old – performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1, as well as one of the most celebrated symphonies of all time, Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9. Though Ms. Wang impressed the audience greatly, the night left me wanting more from Long Yu and the CPO.

Serena Wang © Standard Artists Management
Serena Wang
© Standard Artists Management

The night started with Qigang Chen’s Enchantements Oubliés, written for strings, percussion, harp and piano. Born in 1951 in Shanghai, China, Chen’s musical education was impeded by the Cultural Revolution which had him spending three years undergoing “ideological re-education” during his teens. This however, served to only heightened his passion for Western classical music. With his high achieving marks from the Beijing Central Conservatory, he earned a scholarship to study under the tutelage of Olivier Messiaen in Paris. Enchantements Oubliés bears some characteristic French sounds with hints of French Impressionism scattered through the piece, cleverly blended with a pentatonic scale structure commonly associated with oriental music.

In its opening, a 4-note motif is introduced in a slow and ethereal light texture, almost as if he was trying to paint airiness for us. This motif takes us through nostalgic episodes exploring the glittering sounds of the harp through the deeper tones of the cello. There are quite abrupt changes in the mood and tempo in this piece, where all of the sudden the beat becomes somewhat jazzy and the initial motif is used in a way that would be more akin to the gallop of a horse. Overall, this is a truly beautiful piece and very approachable for a 21st century work. I particularly enjoyed hearing the sounds of various percussion instruments used in a melodic sense.

It is quite common nowadays to hear about young talented stars, especially coming out of Asia. At 12 years old, Ms. Wang has won plenty of awards and has had many concert performances with big name orchestras under her belt, thus making her San Francisco debut all the more anticipated. Ms. Wang walked onto the stage wearing a bright red dress and sparkly shoes which was quite endearing but also appropriate, although making it hard to be fixated on anything else on the stage apart from her, the soloist.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major comes from the earlier half of Beethoven’s career as a composer and thus exhibits the galant classical style, particularly in the first movement. Ms. Wang, upon entering with her piano solo, drew the audience in with her effortless execution of the piece. Her finger work was impressive through fast highly technical passages and she phrased the music beautifully. Her playing was very neat – there was a lot of care in how she ended her musical phrases. I would have preferred this Allegro con brio to be a touch faster and perhaps played with a little more fire by the CPO. The Largo second movement then opens with the solo piano voicing a beautiful and lyrical melody while the Rondo: Allegro third movement reminds us that this was indeed a Beethoven composition, bold and raucous while full of joy. Unfortunately, the energy that is contained in the music didn't come through. Throughout I felt as though Yu’s and the CPO’s style was quite cautious, as if to play it safe. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I wished for more originality in their playing. As for Ms. Wang, I have no doubts that this is only the beginning of many more for her. During her performance, I often needed to remind myself of her youth given just how able she is to communicate music so honestly in her playing.

The final offering of the night was Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor "From the New World". This, being perhaps one of the most charming symphonies to audiences from all ages, held a lot of promise. Certainly, it was wonderful to be able to hear the nuances of the music that often gets masked in recordings. Compared to the earlier half of the night, the CPO displayed more vigour, although I still felt some hesitancy. Yu and the CPO breezed through the movements, ending the concert correctly, but falling short of greatness.

***11