Violinist, Chinese orchestra make a lively showing at Kravis Center

By David Fleshler

Violinist Bin Huang performed the “Butterfly Lovers” Concerto Tuesday night at the Kravis Center with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra.

From the land of bustling conservatories, busy piano factories and a vast and growing group of listeners who can’t get enough Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the China National Symphony Orchestra came to South Florida.

The orchestra appeared Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, in a program that included Chinese works of the 20th and 21st centuries and one European classic. The booming classical music scene of China has already given the world top-flight soloists such as pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. So how does one of the country’s leading orchestras sound?

At times, as with the richly-textured passages of dark, Germanic harmonies in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, the musicians sounded like any of the excellent Western orchestras that have appeared on the Kravis stage. At other times, there was a lack of balance, a failure to blend tones that put them in the second tier. But throughout the concert, there was a lively sense of commitment and engagement from the musicians and conductor En Shao that went a long way toward putting over the works on the program.

The orchestra entered fully into the late Romantic world of Strauss’s autobiographical tone poem, “A Hero’s Life,” with a performance that was particularly strong in the lustrous passages for full orchestra. But the performance wasn’t consistent. The opening lacked sweep and plodded, with a lack of balance that gave it a chaotic sound. The “Battle” section came off seriously underpowered, with the brass playing in a manner more diffident than robust. But the long, languorous ending glowed with warm orchestral tones, and throughout the performance there was particularly fine horn playing. Concertmaster Yunzhi Liu proved himself a real virtuoso, bringing a honeyed tone and iron-fingered technique to the tone poem’s difficult solo violin passages.

The violinist Bin Huang joined the orchestra for the Butterfly Lovers Concerto, a 1959 work by Zhanhao He and Gang Chen, probably the most popular classical work to come out of China. She gave a full-throated performance, with soaring, rhapsodic accounts of the work’s Chinese-tinged melodies and a bravura performance of technical fireworks—chords, runs, bouncing bow passages—firmly rooted in the European virtuoso tradition. She took the fast middle section at headlong speed, conquering its technical hurdles with great lightness and agility.

The concert opened with the first movement of Earth Requiem, written by the Chinese composer Xia Guan in the aftermath of the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. The work, which opens with pianissimo strings, was similar in tone and texture to the Barber Adagio for Strings, with a few Chinese turns of phrase and an old-fashioned, late Romantic harmonic vocabulary. The orchestra sounded particularly rich and well balanced in this work, bringing it smoothly to an affirmative climax before allowing the music to die out.

As an encore, the orchestra performed a traditional Chinese melody called Pleasant Evening, arranged for string orchestra.

Posted in Performances

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Wed Jan 23, 2013
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