Clara Yang wore the same spectacular dress for the US premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits last night in UNC’s Memorial Hall. A dress like that signals utter confidence; Yang’s playing equalled the dress in bold certitude. Carolina Performing Arts had commissioned the concerto for piano and orchestra for Yang to play on this occasion with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and the composer Chen Yi was in the audience.
The world has changed so much in my lifetime. I never thought I’d live to see a composer whose childhood had been disrupted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution honored by a branch of the Chinese state that glorifies the very music that had been banned during those destructive years. When Yang took her bows, she called Chen Yi to the stage as well, and the top of my head nearly blew off. Chen Yi, now 63 and a professor in Kansas City, wore a pants suit, tailored to her, hardly a baggy worker’s uniform–but dark blue, with a Chairman Mao collar.
Each of the four movements in Four Spirits is an aural portrait of a mythical/spiritual animal from ancient Chinese culture, and each is quite different in character. Vivid, colorful and distinct, each aroused a different feeling in the listener. The piano alone takes the first bars–the entry of the Blue Dragon of the East–but from then on, the piano and orchestra bind tightly together. I thought the music was thrilling, rather in the way that a painted portrait can be thrilling when it feels true and insightful to the viewer. It might perhaps have been even better had actions occurred–what do these creatures do? But just to see them in the mind’s eye through sound was pretty mystical. I particularly liked the dual nature of the plodding Black Xuanwu of the North with its shimmering snake scales and percussive clickings, and the section in the White Tiger of the West that evokes the ghostly cat, its stripes like shadows among the flickering shadows of a bamboo grove, although the composer seemed to have a special affinity for the Red Phoenix in the South, which rose again and again in all its glory in the concerto’s final movement.
It is not often one gets to hear a well-known piece of music in a way that makes it seem as if one had never heard it before. After intermission, the orchestra played Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 and conductor Long Yu’s interpretation was silken and subtle. It is such a strange piece, starting off sort of boilerplate–but ominous sounds weave in–the martial beat, rigid, coercive structures. In the second movement, an individual voice rings out in a gorgeous line from the first violin, but it’s quickly supplanted by pretty dances that ring with false gaiety. The third movement is infused with fearful melancholy, and the martial forces sound louder and closer. The final movement seems to indicate a kind of take-over, a crushing even, of the gentle and gay by powerful forces whose militaristic strength and gaudy glory are triumphant. Shostakovich wrote it in 1937, attempting to make a comeback rather than an exit through the gulag. It was a coded picture of life in Stalin’s USSR, but its enormous popularity allowed Shostakovich to be (somewhat) rehabilitated, and although he had another terrible bout with the authorities later, he lived until 1975.
It is a disturbing piece to me, and all the more so in this interpretation that somehow left more air, more space for one to feel and think, than is usually heard. There was nothing brash here, and what is beautiful in the music was very beautiful indeed. The massed strings, in perfect synchrony, even to the angles of the bows, were the very definition of lush. The percussion was outstanding; the first violin’s truncated solo was unforgettable; the flutes and harp were particularly lovely. It was indeed a gorgeous night at the symphony.