The China Philharmonic, with Clara Yang, at Carolina Performing Arts


Clara Yang performing the world premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits, a Carolina Performing Arts commission, in Beijing with the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo courtesy Clara Yang.


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.





An Unprecedented Opportunity, Coming Up at Carolina Performing Arts

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.


Maestro Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Yan Liang.


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.


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