Liszt, Scriabin and a Fang Man world premiere deliver a feast of maximalist music

United StatesUnited States Various: Wu Wei (sheng), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 3.3.2022. (HS)

Sheng player Wu Wei, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony © Kristin Loken

Fang ManSong of the Flaming Phoenix (火凤凰的笙音) (world premiere)

Liszt – Piano Concerto No.2 in A major

ScriabinThe Poem of Ecstasy

Fang Man, a Chinese-born composer who lives in South Carolina, provided a sustained bolt of energy with the world premiere of her Song of the Flaming Phoenix which kicked off this week’s subscription concert by the San Francisco Symphony.

Her music has been performed by the Concertgebouw Camerata, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music and the Tokyo Philharmonic. Tunes and cacophonous percussion from Chinese orchestral music leaven a signature mix of brash dissonance, dense harmonies and driving rhythms. The new piece, appropriate in a city symbolized by the phoenix, began a concert of broadly expressive music.

This phoenix is one scary bird. Fang Man embeds songs of seven American birds into a riot of pounding drums, cymbals, tuned percussion and an outsized brass section that at times calls to mind the third-stream jazz of Sun Ra or Gunther Schuller.

The piece opens quietly, a bass drum thumping against eerie chords. A gradual crescendo introduces growling and squawking figures that reach noisy climaxes in which the musicians of the whole orchestra play freely against each other until conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen waves them off – only for the bird to gradually rise again and again over the piece’s 25 minutes. That’s what the mythical phoenix does too.

Phoenix was also a showpiece for the sheng, a centuries-old Chinese mouth organ that looks like a vertical bundle of bamboo and sounds like a cross between a harmonica and a bagpipe, only not nearly as loud. It is a measure of the composer’s technical ability that the big orchestra seldom overpowers the sheng, played with rock-star physical energy by Wu Wei. The Chinese-born artist has made a name for himself improvising with jazz artists, and an extensive cadenza near the end of the piece gave him plenty of leeway to use all the aspects of the instrument – polyphonic, even contrapuntal, and masterfully paced.

Combined with eye-opening rhythmic precision from the big orchestra, the result brought more than half of the nearly full audience to its feet.

After all that, the other concerto on the program, Liszt’s No.2 in A major, could have sounded staid, but pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Salonen would have none of that. There was a tightly-wound quality to the relatively languid orchestral opening before Thibaudet’s entrance captured a rhythmic edge in all its pianistic flourishes. Salonen’s pacing was impeccable, drawing out the tempo just enough in the lyrical sections and getting bounce into the more rhythmic parts.

For all the excitement in the outer sections (the five movements played without pause), it was the middle interplay between Thibaudet and visiting principal cellist Austin Huntington that made the strongest impression. Their duets were especially touching, played with nobility but no artifice by Huntington, whose day job is principal cellist of the Indianapolis Symphony. (The principal’s slot in San Francisco is currently vacant.)

Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, a late-Romantic cauldron of boiling passion that out-Wagners Liebestod for sustained yearning, brought the maximalist evening to a big climax. Salonen lit the slow burn and kept it from fully engulfing the music until the final sustained chord. Step-by-step it surged and ebbed, the brass sounding especially orotund, the trumpets and muted trombones even more so than the seven French horns.

The hero in all this was timpanist Edward Stephan, who controlled the rhythmic pulse with a pillowy touch in the softer moments and injected a pounding heartbeat as necessary. Salonen even gave him a solo bow at the end.

Harvey Steiman

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