De Waart and Milwaukee Play Qigang Chen

United StatesUnited States  Spring for Music, Concert V: Messiaen, Debussy, Qigang Chen: Xiaoduo Chen (soprano), Meng Meng (qingyi and soprano), Wu Man (pipa), Hong Wang (erhu), Yang Yi (zheng), Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 11.5.2012 (BH)

Messiaen: Les offrandes oubliées (1930)
: La mer (1905)
Chen: Iris dévoilée (2001)

By the time the fifth concert in Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music series rolled around, I was beginning to regret having to miss the others in the series, with the orchestras of Edmonton (Canada), Alabama and Nashville, led by (respectively) William Eddins, Justin Brown, and Giancarlo Guerrero.

Although this final concert with Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra contained at least one “safe” choice (Debussy’s La Mer), when coupled with Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées, the pair made handsome, well-considered companions for the program’s second half with a work by one of Messiaen’s disciples. Having heard the Debussy at least three or four times in the last few years, it’s a pleasure to report that the Milwaukee ensemble’s version was a joy. Glowing strings, brass with an umber cast, piquant winds and expertly drilled percussion combined to create a memorable account of a work that can seem overplayed. De Waart, in crisp form, maintained both sweep and clarity—two qualities essential for this piece to succeed. (Due to transit circumstances beyond my control I was late arriving, and missed getting into the hall for the Messiaen by mere seconds. But listening from the foyer, De Waart seemed to be deploying the same transparency and excellent musicianship that the ensemble brought to the Debussy.)

The work of Qigang Chen is virtually unknown in the United States. He is perhaps best known to Westerners for his work as Music Director for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and for being the sole student of Messiaen, late in the French composer’s life.  (I got a small taste of Chen’s output a few years ago, writing a short column on Chinese composers for Juilliard.) Iris devoilée (Iris unveiled, from 2001) is a fine example of his striking juxtaposition of Western musical elements with those from China, starting with the instrumentation: a large orchestra is augmented by qingyi, pipa, erhu and zheng, and two sopranos, one using traditional Chinese opera vocal  techniques, and the other singing in a more traditional Western operatic mode. The work’s nine sections evoke an array of feminine qualities, from simplicity and coyness to lust, and Chen encourages piquant collisions of Western Romanticism, traditional Chinese elements and a 21st-century composer’s interest in “extended techniques.” Strings will exult in melody, then collect like barnacles in a tone cluster. At times scales can be pentatonic; at others the score dissolves into microtones. Dynamic contrasts abound, from alluring murmurs to (at one point) a shocking scream. It will probably be a long time before this score returns, and the appreciative audience seemed to grasp that it was hearing something rare.

Bruce Hodges