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.

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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.

 

Troubadour: Richard Thompson at CPA

I’m a lucky person when it comes to music. I was introduced to all sorts of sounds early in life, and never forced into a single narrow allegiance, except to quality. Some of the best listening experiences, it turns out, come when one thinks one has already heard THE definitive version, only to have it capped.

An example: the first time I heard a recording of the band Fairport Convention. I was 14, up in my friend Sheila’s room in Ithaca, New York, 1969. She had several records of the new British electric folk, recordings that included some of the marvelous ancient ballads that came to this country and took root in our mountains. But that afternoon, she put on the new Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief that included “Matty Groves,” which I thought I knew all about from the Joan Baez recording. Well! I didn’t know much. Amazing forthright singing by Sandy Denny of lyrics that varied somewhat from the version I’d heard–but it was the guitar, the muscular ringing guitar propelling and belling under the words that blew my mind. That was Richard Thompson. You can listen to that version here.

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Richard Thompson. Photo: Pamela Littky.

 

Last night, Richard Thompson, now 67, played like that, only more so. Alone on Carolina Performing Arts‘ Memorial Hall stage, he performed songs from all his decades of music-making, from the 1960s to the 2010s. He did not play “Matty Groves,” but otherwise it was a choice selection from 50+ years as a troubadour, 50 years during which he has continually strengthened and refined his crafts, and his songwriting art has grown like a wild grapevine, sending his songs through the voices of many of the era’s singers.

Thompson’s songs are marvelous, and marvelously unclassifiable, as has been said in many ways by many reviewers: trenchant, with poetical word choices and surprising phrasing–often dark, sometimes sad or bitter or nostalgic or just aghast; but there are just enough gorgeous bright ones to get by on. Don’t want the audience to expire of emotional overload.  But the guitar! There was one man on the stage, with one instrument, but he made that box sound like five or six guitars at once. And separately: Thompson has a huge range of styles, all of which he is master. The driving force in the picking and sliding is irresistible.

Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011, but it appears to have made no difference. His show has zero flash. He’s a workingman, a craftsman, and he stood stalwart for the long, unbroken set with three extensive encores, legs sturdy in blue jeans; muscles dancing below dark shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his trademark beret in place. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer, he was there to do a job of work, some of the best work there is, bringing music and stories to the people.

That he was at Carolina had to do with a professor named Florence Dore, who, as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year, is working on a multi-part project called “Novel Sounds: American Fiction in the Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thompson took part in a panel discussion today as part of it. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that there would be a reciprocity between storytelling in song and storytelling in novels, but there it is. And naturally the rhythms and tones of popular music infiltrate non-song writing, just as the ways of telling in novel and song influence each other. But Richard Thompson’s inclusion on the CPA schedule also fits with CPA’s admirable interest in older musicians, as well the new pathbreakers, and in presenting them these experienced artists in ways that make clear certain things one wants from art can come only from time spent living.

Thompson closed his last encore with “The Dimming of the Day.” Best version I ever heard–but we are both older now.

 

Hot Symphonic Nights in Memorial Hall

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Conductor. Photo courtesy PSO.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Conductor. Photo courtesy PSO.

I heard and saw one of the more thrilling symphonic concerts of my decades of concert-going last night. Carolina Performing Arts is presenting an unusual two-night visit from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the multi-faceted brilliance of the first night’s playing was clearly not an aberration. Led by Manfred Honeck, the PSO played with precision, warmth and passion a varied program that concluded with a heart-poundingly gorgeous rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major. Tonight they will play a different program which will wind up with the Shostakovich 5th. If the Mahler was like riding the biggest roller coaster ever, it’s reasonable to expect that the Shostakovich will be like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Fasten your seat belts, kids.

The program on the 28th included Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina, full of the sounds of cicadas and katydids that he learned to love in his summers at the Brevard, NC, summer music festival. It was a pleasant opener, and beautifully played, but quickly forgotten when soloist Valentina Lisitsa (who made her own path to the world’s stages via her YouTube channel) strode to the piano in a silver cloud of a dress and proceeded to play the living daylights out of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If you ever get a chance to hear her, sit where you can see her face. She sings to herself, and her emotions cross her face like scudding clouds and flashes of sun. The musicianly communication between her and conductor Honeck was equally thrilling. After one particularly glorious passage, she flicked her hand at him, as if saying–top that, buddy–and I think he winked.

But the Mahler! Honeck, like Mahler, is Austrian, and began his career in Vienna. His interpretation of the music was so rich it set off a whirlwind of colors in my mind, and his command of the orchestra is such that each tone and texture had unusual clarity. The volumes and relationships of the various sections are carefully controlled: nothing is muddy; everything builds. And you could enjoy Honeck if you were stone deaf, his conducting style is so visually engrossing. Check it out tonight. I can hardly wait to see what magic signs he uses on Shostakovich.

Swag from the CPA lobby table. Don't know if I'd call him a hipster, but his 5th Symphony will blow your mind.

Swag from the CPA lobby table. Don’t know if I’d call him a hipster, but his 5th Symphony will blow your mind.

 

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