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A Borderless Musical Night

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
01/29/2019 -  
Huanzhi Li: Spring Festival Overture
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Capriccio italien, Op. 45
Peng-Peng Gong: Symphony No. 10 (Peking Fantasy) (world premiere of revised version) (*)

The Philadelphia Orchestra; Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Liang Zhang, Kensho Watanabe (*) (Conductors)

P.-P. Gong, K. Watanabe (© Jessica Griffin)

Tension about tariffs may be at an all-time high between China and the US, but the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra (PO) and the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) have been engaged in a mutual cultural trade agreement for decades. Both orchestras were onstage in Verizon Hall January 29, for a one night only concert on the same day that the Philadelphians announced that they will embark on a two-week tour to China this May. Musical Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will lead the tour with performances in Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Nanjin and a weeklong residency in Beijing. This is the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 12th tour to China and marks 40 years of historic cultural exchange between the US and China that was initiated by Nixon administration in 1973.

Musicians from the Shanghai Philharmonic joined the Philadelphia Orchestra onstage in Verizon Hall for a Chinese New Year’s concert, the first half conducted by SPO maestro Zhang Liang and Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor Ken Watanabe leading the premiere of 27-year-old Chinese composer newly revised version of Peng-Peng Gong’s Symphony No. 10 (“Peking Fantasy”), a work co-commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra and the SPO.

Preceding the concert, there was a press reception on the second tier of the Kimmel Center, with dignitaries from China and the US, highlighting their ongoing goals of cultural diplomacy. In his remarks, Chinese Consul General Zhang Ping, said as a student in China he would purchase recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra and it was his dream come to true to see them perform live. Ping spoke to the continuing the “great achievements” of artistic engagement and collaborations between musicians from both countries. Philadelphia Orchestra President Matías Tarnopolsky “Welcomes our friends from China for an evening of shared music-making that showcases the partnership between our two cultures.”

Liang bounded on the podium to begin the concert with Haunzhi Zi’s Spring Festival Overture, composed in the mid-50s, in celebration of Chinese New Year and musical Shaanxi Province in Northern China, then led vibrantly detailed performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, followed by Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien. Liang conducts without a baton and was especially animated during Tchaikovsky’s lusty symphonic tarantella. Among the outstanding many outstanding soloists, Juliette Kang (Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster), associate principal flutist Patrick Williams and oboist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia.

In this co-commission of both orchestras, Gong makes it an intriguing fusion of East-West symphonics. This young composer’s maturity is evident. A 40-minute unpaused work, with elements of minimalism, Chinese classicism voicings, it sustains a lucid narrative arc. Gripping modernist ensemble cello drive-in counterpoint to the violins, to mystical note, bends of Chinese ancient strings to magisterial horn fanfares and a matrix of percussive fireworks. The Fantasy even careens into jazz infused 50s era film noir stylings. Gong’s soaring Chinese classicism blooms in a plush central full orchestral symphonic theme. There are moments of pastiche, Peking Fantasy is lucid musical stream that ignites the cultural heritage of both countries. SPO’s first violin Wong Sze Hang commanded throughout the piece and PO trumpeter David Bilger, enchanted with the offstage trumpet solo that engulfed the concert hall.

Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor Kensho Watanabe has not only proved himself masterful with standard repertoire, he conducted this intricate premier with dynamic precision and heart. Watanabe coaxed the composer Gong onstage for several well-deserved bows. The composer then introduced one of his inspirations for the work, Peking Opera star Shang Changrong, renowned for his warrior characters. The composer translated Changrong fiery speech from Chinese to English, as he spoke about the enduring bond between musicians and that indeeed “Music has no borders!” On a frigid January in Philadelphia, it was definitely a borderless musical night to remember and be inspired by, even as the political walls try to close us in.

Lewis Whittington



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