Rising to the Challenge of a Stimulating Chamber Programme

United StatesUnited States Ibert, Mozart, Chung, Arriaga, Haydn: Ching-Yun Hu (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé & Geoffrey McDonald (conductors), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.10.2016. (BJ)

Ibert – Hommage à Mozart
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K.488
Chung – Red Cliff, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Arriaga – Overture to Los esclavos felices
Haydn – Symphony No. 99 in E flat major Hob.I:99

As an element in music director Dirk Brossé’s penchant for fresh and stimulating programming, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia seems to be setting up a habit of including a brand-new piano concerto in its season-opening concerts. Last year the result was a genuine thrill, provided by the young composer-pianist Conrad Tao’s dazzling work in the genre, titled An Adjustment.

I wish I could be equally positive about this season’s world-premiere work, the concerto Red Cliff, by the 60-year-old Taiwanese composer Yiu-Kwong Chung. But despite a spectacularly virtuoso performance by soloist Ching-Yun Hu—which was some compensation for her neat but largely characterless playing in the preceding performance of Mozart’s A-major Concerto K488—Chung’s work itself seemed to me lacking in any strong musical character. It was hard to discern any real connection with the 15th-century historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that the program note told us inspired it; and it was also hard to know just whom to blame for the absence of individuality in the music, given the composer’s statement that the first two at least of the work’s four sections are based on thematic material borrowed from another composer. (The concerto featured an erhu, the Chinese two-string fiddle, gracefully played by Andy Lin, as a modest secondary solo instrument.)

The evening had opened with Hommage à Mozart, commissioned by the French national radio from Jacques Ibert to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart in 1956. A brief piece of orchestral high-jinks but no remotely Mozartean quality, it showed the Chamber Orchestra in fine form. More rewarding, however, was the other short piece that followed intermission.

If ever a man was destined to be a composer, Arriaga was surely that man. This extraordinarily gifted Spaniard was born on what would have been Mozart’s 50th birthday. His father, Juan Simón de Arriaga, was himself musically talented, and it can hardly have been merely coincidental that his son was baptized Juan Crisóstomo—Spanish versions of his great predecessor’s first two baptismal names, Johannes Chrysostomus. Arriaga was to die, cruelly young, in 1826, a few days before his 20th birthday, but by that time he had already created an oeuvre that included three delightful string quartets, a masterful and charming symphony, and, when he was only 13, the opera Los esclavos felices. It was shortly before his death several years later that he composed for the opera a finely shaped overture that is largely gentle and lyrical in character; within the framework of the Chamber Orchestra’s commitment to collaborating with young conductors, it was led by 31-year-old Geoffrey McDonald, who drew attractive and well-disciplined playing from the orchestra.

In conclusion, we were treated to one of the wittiest and most original of Haydn’s “London” symphonies, No. 99 in E flat major. It features an artfully designed first movement, an unusually grave and poignant Adagio with some marvelous woodwind solos that were beautifully realized by bassoonist Michelle Rosen and her woodwind colleagues, a minuet prophetic of the scherzo style that would replace that traditional dance in the music of the next generation of composers, and a finale full of Haydn’s signature fleet sparkle. Brossé had the measure of the piece down to perfection, and the orchestra covered itself with glory. It’s a great pleasure to hear a Haydn symphony played at the culminating end of a program, rather than tossed off at the start of a concert as if it were a sort of insignificant trifle.

Bernard Jacobson

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