I rarely write previews, because–you don’t really know ahead of time. But sometimes the risk of an event turning out not so well is negligible, and the odds of it being astounding are very good.
Carolina Performing Arts is bringing the China Philharmonic Orchestra to Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, for one of five US performances. Maestro Long Yu will conduct. The odds of it being a particularly gorgeous night at the symphony are about 99.9%
In my lifetime China has changed convulsively. It has gone from destroying its high culture and its practitioners during the Cultural Revolution, to cultivating it and them in a big way: evidence for this includes the China Philharmonic, founded in 2000 from the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. (Like North Carolina’s own Symphony, the China Phil is a division of a state agency.) By 2009, Gramophone Magazine was calling the China Phil “one of the world’s most inspiring orchestras.”
But wait! There’s more! The program will open with the US premiere of a concerto for piano and orchestra commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts from the distinguished composer Chen Yi for UNC Associate Professor Clara Yang, who is a concert pianist. Four Spirits represents in sound the four spiritual animals of ancient Chinese tradition: the Blue Dragon of the East; the White Tiger of the West; the Red Phoenix of the South; and the Black Xuanwu, a turtle-snake hybrid, of the North.
The premier Chinese government-sponsored orchestra will play a new work based in ancient culture, by an expatriate Chinese woman, written for another expatriate Chinese woman soloist. That the performance in Chapel Hill will not be the world premiere, is because that recently took place in Beijing, in a new auditorium in the ancient Forbidden City, palace of emperors. Tectonic cultural plates have shifted. This kind of superb cultural diplomacy was completely unimaginable earlier in my life. Who knows if it will continue uninterrupted by new geo-political complications. Carpe diem–or rather, seize the night, this Thursday, December 8. Even if this orchestra returns one day, they wouldn’t be playing this new music.
“It is a big deal,” Clara Yang told me. “To perform with the premier orchestra in China, in the Forbidden City Concert Hall, was incredible. It meant so much to me to work with these incredible musicians. It was even more meaningful to have my family there, and on top of that, my childhood teacher from when I was very young, she came.” Yang was born in Tianjin, near Beijing; her family emigrated to the California Bay Area when she was 13.
But how did this whole thing come about?
“The whole commission started with Emil Kang,” says Yang. Kang is executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, and a very forward-thinking man. Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming explains:
“We are great admirers of Clara Yang and Chen Yi. Clara is of course our colleague at UNC, but we have also collaborated with her many times in the past and she is not only a fantastic pianist and interpreter of new music, but also a vital creative partner. Almost two years ago, we were made aware that the China Philharmonic would be touring the US and we jumped at the chance to present them, with their brilliant Music Director Maestro Yu. At that time, they also invited us to participate in selecting the repertoire for their performance in Chapel Hill, and we realized the opportunity to make more of this than even a night of great music. As we always have Clara in mind for new projects, we proposed to the orchestra that we commission Dr. Chen to write a piece for Clara and they agreed to perform it on the program. Dr. Chen was immediately enthusiastic to write the concerto, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Kang connected pianist Yang and composer Chen via email, YouTube, CDs, etc, but, says Yang, “before she started writing, I got to meet her and stay at her home [in Kansas City]. During the visit a sort of friendship developed. She is such a gracious person, so warm.
“Her music is full of life, of colors, of excitement, beauty–everything is in there!” says Yang. The concerto Four Spirits is “based on a few Chinese folksongs, but she goes off from there, she incorporates many techniques. Each movement sounds completely different, because is represents a different animal. The orchestration is very beautiful, very full.”
After Yang’s Beijing performance, she went into the audience to hear the rest of the program–Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, the same work the China Phil will perform after intermission in Chapel Hill on the 8th. “They sounded really really great.”
Hear for yourself. Tickets here. Showtime 7:30.