The Philharmonia Welcomes the Chinese New Year of The Dog

02/03/2018

Li Huanzi, Mendelssohn, Traditional, Beethoven: Serena Wang (piano), Xiaoshujing Farmers’ Choir, Soloists from Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra / Long Yu (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.3.2018. (CC)

Li Huanzhu – Spring Festival Overture (1955/56)
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.25
Traditional – Yunnan Folk Songs
Beethoven – Choral Fantasia in C minor Op.80

This was an interesting programme, celebrating the Chinese New Year (or, as in the title of Li Huanzhu’s piece, ‘Spring Festival’ – not that there was anything spring-like about the snow that had enveloped London).

The unremittingly happy Spring Festival Overture by Li Huanzhu is actually the first movement of a Spring Festival Suite. Simple of structure (nicely tripartite with a lyrical middle section), there is nothing to stretch even the most compromised listener here, yet it retains the attention thanks to its brazen optimism. All credit to the Philharmonia for jumping into the spirit of things, the first violins chirruping infectiously. Fabulous.

Chinese pianist Serena Wang was born in San Francisco in 2004; she returned to China in 2010 but is currently living in Boston. Just by her age alone and the way she despatches Mendelssohn’s tricky passages, one can see there is a great future ahead if properly handled. Finger definition has clearly been drilled in and there was much to delight. Wang’s sound is on the brittle side, though, and some passages emerge as dry and insubstantial. Mature wit or turn of phrase has yet to dawn in her vocabulary, although there are learned attempts. Similarly, the fantasy of the central Andante is just beyond her interpretative ken as yet, and the finale needed more abandon. The orchestra accompanied well under Long Yu, an experienced conductor whose economical gestures throughout spoke of a similar approach to discipline. Despite those caveats, the audience reaction was surprisingly muted in response to such prestidigitation.

The chorus was a real pull here. The Xiaoshujing Farmers’ Choir is also known as ‘Farmers’ Chorus of Miao Ethnic Groups in Xiaoshujing, Fumin County’ (Fumin County is in the Yunan province of southwestern China). Extant since the introduction of Christianity in the late 1950s, and dressed in traditional garb, the choir gave four folksong performances, the first unaccompanied at the front of the stage (with conductor in the stalls aisle) before parading around to the back to work with the orchestra (no arranger was given). The four songs have typically evocative titles (‘Coloured Clouds chasing the Moon’ for example). One has to give full credit to the choir for their fervent singing and beauty of sound, not to mention their discipline. The music hovers around the poignant but can descend, in this arrangement at least, into the syrupy.

Finally (at least for the advertised programme), the Beethoven Choral Fantasia. Wang seemed to have a rather low engagement with the Beethovenian spirit at work here, despite the clean delivery, and here a lack of depth at the higher dynamic levels became ever more obvious. The solo contributions from the orchestra were excellent. I am slightly hesitant about describing the horns as rustic (that’s the chorus, surely?) but they were certainly assertive, while the bright-toned soloists (drawn from the Philharmonia Voices) were a perfectly balanced bunch. The chorus itself excelled. The odd corner revealed short rehearsal time but the spirit was all there, and it was good to hear this rarely-performed piece.

Encore? What might one expect? Not Londonderry Air (‘O Danny Boy …’) sung in Chinese, that’s for sure. Geographical accuracy aside (given the vast size of China, on their scale I suppose Ireland might count as basically part of Greater London) this was an absolute, and completely unexpected, delight.

The snow presumably kept a lot of people away, for it was far from a full house. There was a prevalence of smartphone usage throughout, though, distracting and completely ignored by the ushers despite the now expected holding up of a laminated card indicating no photography before the concert. Can you listen and take photos at the same time? Much less listen and browse Instagram

Colin Clarke

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