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Elements, butterflies and taut authority

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
11/09/2014 -  & November 11 (Toronto), 13 (Montreal), 2014
Chen Qigang: The Five Elements
Chen Gang, He Zhanhao: “The Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64

Lu Siqing (violin)
China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, Lü Jia (conductor)

(© Xiao Yi)

During November, China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra (NCPA) is touring the United States (Chicago, Washington, New York and Philadelphia) and Canada (Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal), presenting a demanding range of Western and Chinese repertoire. The Canadian leg of the tour also is the event for the 2013-2014 China-Canada Cultural Series exchange program, during which Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and maestro Pinchas Zukerman performed in Beijing last year.

The Ottawa performance demonstrated the NCPA is a polished, first rate ensemble which is doing its home nation an excellent service in its role as cultural ambassador. The program’s first half featured two contemporary Chinese works which showcased the orchestra, its conductor Lü Jia and violin soloist Lu Siqing to impressive effect. The works themselves, however, were less than overwhelming. Each was clever and attractive, but hardly innovative, even given that they were composed some years ago (one of them, decades ago).

Chen Qigang’s The Five Elements, commissioned for Radio-France in 1998, seems more like a preliminary sketch than a finished work. Its five elements (water, wood, fire, earth and metal) are strikingly realized from a purely sonic perspective. However, if you didn’t know which you were hearing, all five seemed rather the same. If anything, the opening (and soothingly bubbling) Water is the most effective. The composer, a former student of Nadia Boulanger and protégé of Charles Dutoit, states he is working with concepts more metaphysical than literal (or, apparently, even more conventionally impressionistic) but if so, this was not communicated very clearly. The orchestration nonetheless is detailed and imaginative, often reflecting Qigang’s predilection for twentieth century French music.

“The Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto, composed in 1959 jointly by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, made for pleasant enough listening, however came across as little more than glorified Pops Concert fare [program notes explained the work is about butterflies who are lovers, not people who love butterflies]. In seven agreeably lyrical movements, this was like second rate film music. Indeed, the opening Andante cantabile might have been a music library’s generic Asian track for an establishing shot of Beijing or Hong Kong in a jet-set adventure movie. Violin soloist Lu Siqing managed the work with requisite virtuosity and élan, and his Paganini encore (proffered after applause had ended) served notice this young man aspires to be string playing counterpart to the hugely successful Chinese-American pianist Lang Lang.

After intermission Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Symphony No. 5 in E minor was performed. NCPA and conductor Lü Jia delivered the work with strong authority and with taut rhythm which held it together from the first note to the last. This is Tchaikovsky’s most German Symphony and has more in common with Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms than with anything his Russian Five colleagues were composing. Its structure is less elaborately ambitious than that for the preceding fourth or subsequent sixth Symphonies [the latter was template for Mahler’s Symphony No. 9]. There were occasional rough patches, but only rarely and overall the performance projected the work’s concept and concision quite brilliantly. This was a reading listeners could relish and relax with, and it provided an impressive conclusion for this orchestra’s current Canadian tour debut.

China’s NCPA Orchestra

Charles Pope Jr.



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