Night of musical landscapes: Xian Zhang leads the Seattle Symphony in Chang, Korngold and Copland

United StatesUnited States Various: Ray Chen (violin), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Xian Zhang (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 4.4.2024. (ZC)

Xian Zhang conducts the Seattle Symphony © Carlin Ma

Dorothy Chang – ‘Northern Star’
Korngold – Violin Concerto in D major
Copland – Suite from Appalachian Spring

In his recent triumphant return to Seattle, Ray Chen enthralled audiences during his performance with the Seattle Symphony. Unlike his 2021 debut when a broken string kept the audience on the edge of their seats, this time he was flawless. Chen’s rendition of Korngold’s Violin Concerto was nothing short of electrifying, leaving the audience spellbound.

Adding to the evening’s excitement was the auspicious return of conductor Xian Zhang, a welcome presence on the podium. As the head of the New Jersey Symphony, Zhang has been quietly building her reputation as one of the most electrifying conductors in the United States. She also has connections to the Melbourne Symphony and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano. Instead of relying on a public relations campaign, Xian Zhang’s career has been built on the strength of the orchestras she has nurtured.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Symphony announced Klaus Mäkelä as its new music director, moving quickly and determining the orchestra’s direction for the foreseeable future. In contrast, the Seattle Symphony’s search for its next music director remains ongoing. The slow pace is perplexing, especially given the exemplary performances that talented conductors like Zhang have led with the orchestra, showcasing the potential of the Seattle Symphony with the right artistic leadership.

The concert opened with Dorothy Chang’s ‘Northern Star’, excerpted from the longer True North: Symphonic Ballet, and the eight-minute piece set the mood for the rest of the night. It comes across as a musical landscape, shimmering, pulsing and evoking memories of place and time. Zhang’s command of the piece was evident, and her crisp, elegant direction molded passages and extracted sonic wonders from the orchestra.

Next, violinist Ray Chen joined the orchestra in Korngold’s famous and justly popular Violin Concerto, which is more cinematic in tone but just as nostalgic as Chang’s work. Korngold’s shapely melodies were no great challenge for Chen who matched the piece’s romantic fervor at every moment. His golden tone, clean lines and crisp attack are just what the piece needs, and Zhang and the Seattle Symphony were there with him at each step of the way. In the first two movements, the orchestra is more backdrop than partner, but by the finale, they were roaring with life, matching Chen’s virtuosity with panache of their own.

The evening concluded with Copland’s orchestral suite from Appalachian Spring, an iconic work that has become synonymous with American music. Copland’s distinct style, characterized by sweeping melodies, open harmonies and evocative orchestration, is fully on display here. Appalachian Spring captures the grandeur and pioneering spirit of America, making it a beloved twentieth-century masterpiece that is instantly recognized by audiences. However, despite its popularity, achieving a truly exceptional performance can be challenging.

Zhang and the orchestra proved their mettle in a performance which brimmed with energy, vivid colors and impeccable detail – a true embodiment of Copland’s masterpiece. Conductor and orchestra navigated the score’s shifting moods with finesse, rendering lyrical tenderness one moment, unleashing boundless exhilaration the next and maintaining razor-sharp precision throughout. While the iconic ‘Simple Gifts’ theme remains a highlight, Zhang and the ensemble unveiled the multifaceted brilliance of Appalachian Spring, offering a memorable interpretation that transcended the work’s famous tune.

Xian Zhang was a revelation in her latest appearance with the Seattle Symphony, and the two concerts she will conduct next year should be required listening. They promise to be equally engaging. Zhang’s juxtaposition of Copland, Korngold and Chang created a moving tribute to the power of place and memory, and her achievement whetted my appetite for the possibility of her leading the orchestra permanently.

Zach Carstensen

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