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The Sounds of Unheard Melodies

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/28/2009 -  
Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo:
Chinese works for solo piano:
He Lüting: The Cowherd’s Flute
Lu Wengcheng: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake
Traditional: The Moon Chased by the Colourful Clouds
Sun Yiquiang: Dance of Spring Chen Qigang: Er Huang for Piano and Orchestra (World Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
Gustav Mahler Das Lied von der Erde

Lang Lang (Piano), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-soprano), Gregory Kunde (Tenor)
Juilliard Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor)

Anne Sofie von Otter (© Progressive DCT, Huffman)

”Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter,” wrote the poet.

John Keats was plainly not referring to China’s Tang Dynasty, but the latest concert from Carnegie Hall’s Ancient Paths, Modern Voices started and ended with those unheard 700-year-old melodies, as imagined by a Californian and a Central European.

The late Lou Harrison–whose final work was written for pipa-player Wu Man–was a founder of the California-Asian School, and his eclectic version of Tang Dynasty Court Music started the concert. As an Asian scholar, Harrison’s use of Japanese and Korean instruments rings true. The three countries were in constant contact with each other seven centuries ago, so the use of a double-headed Korean drum (which banged away at uneven intervals), Japanese drum and Harrison’s own invented flute gave an eerie sound to the five-minute work.

It was stately, consonant, majestic and very very mysterious. Knowing the instrumentation of the time, we can still only dream how it sounded. Harrison gave life to that dream.

Mahler’s Song of the Earth was based on highly stylized translations, mainly from Tang Poet Li Po, but some have read into the piece Chinese influences. The high range of the mezzo, the use of gongs, the long linear melodies, the exotic flute solos are ersatz-Chinese, hardly Mahler’s aim. The piece is simply an evocative symphony and a haunting song-cycle, somehow in one work.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the ever more remarkable Juilliard Orchestra (with its unusual Chinese instruments), and the Mahler was graced with two singers who were different yet effective. Tenor Gregory Kunde was so outgoing, a virtual Heldentenor, a man who visually and aurally acted out his role as drunkard or youth. The tenor was stentorian, clear, heroically ringing, throwing himself into the role as much as than the music.

Over several decades, Anne Sofie von Otter has had perhaps the most pristine mezzo voice in any opera or song-cycle. While she had to consciously reach for the high F’s of “The Solitary One” she still has the most perfect instrument for the middle range. The last 30 minutes, “Farewell” has the most gorgeous music known to man. The Juilliard’s horns went through their Olympian chores without a single burn. Ms. von Otter ravished us (no other word will do) with warmth and luminescence.

Lang Lang, who plays a major part in this Festival, showed again that he is a most elegant pianist. The four Chinese songs were not memorable (they could have been subtitled “Edward MacDowell Goes To China”), but he played the music as if it was Chopin.

He was also soloist for the world premiere of Chen Qigang’s Er Huang for piano and orchestra. “Er Huang”, a style of of Peking Opera song, was dominant, both piano and orchestra rambling through a mixture of Yellow River Concerto and Impressionistic meanderings. It was cinematic, a little old-fashioned, but no unpleasant, and the visiting composer happily welcomed the applause.

Harry Rolnick



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