East and West (Plus Two 24-Year-Olds) in “Celebrate Asia”

United StatesUnited States Takemitsu, Karpen, Li, and Grieg: The Six Tones: Nguyen Thanh Thuy (dan trahn), Bgo Tra My (dan bau), Stefan Östersjö (ti ba, banjo, and guitar), Haochen Zhang (piano) Seattle Symphony, Julia Tai (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.3.2014 (BJ)

Takemitsu: Three Film Scores
Richard Karpen: Nam Mái (world premiere)
Shuying Li: Overture to The Siege (world premiere)
Grieg: Piano Concerto


This Benaroya Hall concert was the sixth in the Seattle Symphony’s annual series designed “to recognize the diversity and richness of the Asian Cultures that have contributed to the social, artistic and economic vitality of Seattle.”

Founded by Yoshi Minegishi, these cleverly planned programs are titled, accurately enough, “Celebrating Asia.” But it seems to me that they might no less appositely carry the title “Connecting with Asia,” because, at least on this occasion, the most striking aspect of both music and performances lay in the way they combined Asian and Western elements.

This was particularly true of one of the evening’s two world premieres, Nam Mái, by University of Washington School of Music director Richard Karpen. A very substantial piece that plays for about 25 minutes, it sets a small group of Vietnamese plucked-string instruments against an orchestral string ensemble. The Six Tones—actually three musicians, two Vietnamese and one Swedish—played music exhaustively rehearsed with the composer but still spontaneous, while the 19 orchestral strings realized a precisely notated score. Rather desultory snippets of film were also projected. But the brilliant performance coordinated by Julia Tai achieved logic through purely aural means, the music seeming to work from the sharply contrasted stylistic worlds of the opening toward a satisfying sense of rapprochement.

The program had begun with Three Film Scores for string orchestra by Toru Takemitsu, a supremely gentle man whose music nevertheless barely conceals a vein of violence perhaps characteristic of those who speak softly.

The overture to the opera The Siege by Shuying Li, which had its world premiere after intermission, encompassed enough moments of beauty to suggest that there is a real talent here waiting to emerge once the 24-year-old composer has freed herself from the shackles of old-fashioned Modern Music of the conventional kind. But in this case violence, so far from being interior, was largely dominant, with sonorities that were frankly harsh to the point of inflicting pain, and the piece substituted mere meter for real rhythm: there was little feeling of harmonic pulse.

To end the evening, another 24-year-old, Haochen Zhang, joined the orchestra for the Grieg Piano Concerto. Zhang is that rarity, a young competition winner of real musicality rather than just flash. His delivery of the first movement’s main theme at once demonstrated his ability to combine gentleness with firmness, flexibility with discipline. He covered a dynamic range from the merest whisper to a positively thunderous fortissimo, without losing presence at one end or degenerating into facile banging at the other—the tone was always rich and centered, never metallic.

Conductor Tai permitted some less than precise synchronization in an otherwise accomplished account of the orchestral part. Grieg’s concerto may be an over-familiar warhorse; Liszt loved it, whereas Debussy said he couldn’t understand why it was continually broken up by “marshal trumpet blasts, usually announcing nothing more than the beginning of a languishing little cantabile.” With a soloist of this caliber, though, the piece can take on a welcome touch of freshness. Zhang may well be a star in the making.

Bernard Jacobson

This review appeared also in the Seattle Times.

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