A Most Welcome Overture From China

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

The China National Symphony Orchestra is a solid, energetic and meticulously drilled ensemble, and its Saturday night program at the Music Center at Strathmore, under the direction of Xincao Li, had much to recommend it.

The CNSO was here as part of a larger tour, with different programs in a number of different cities. The selections, printed in the Strathmore booklet and announced from the stage, made a widely varied assortment.

No certifiably major composer wrote more bad music than Dmitri Shostakovich, and he was usually at his worst in ceremonial works. That said, the program-opening "Festive Overture" -- which Shostakovich turned out for the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1954 -- came as a happy surprise. There is something strangely English about it all -- with its cymbal crashes and long-breathed melodic lines, much of it sounds as though it might have been written by Edward Elgar or William Walton, with some occasional echt Shostakovich smirking thrown in for spice.

There were two Chinese pieces -- the "Fantasies Symphoniques" by the contemporary composer Xia Guan and a modern arrangement of a beloved classic, Yanjun Hua's "The Moon Reflected on the Twin Springs." The "Fantasies" are subtitled "Farewell My Concubine" -- no, this is not an awkward translation of Raymond Chandler, but rather a meditation on love and mortality set in the 3rd century B.C. Most of the orchestral writing sounds like Puccini at his most tawdry, but there were pleasures to be had from the pensive, reedy bamboo flute playing of Yue Chen and the authoritative strumming of the Chinese zita by Xiaohong Zhang.

Best of all was Junhua Chen, whose amplified soprano voice took on a cultivated and deliberate shrillness that was as affecting as it was unusual. She made no attempt to sound "pretty" in the Western tradition. Rather, she chanted and yowled in a brilliant and exotic manner, the last impression redoubled by the beauty of her traditional outfit, complete with elaborate headgear.

Wenping Li's arrangement of "The Moon Reflected on the Twin Springs" began with a loud, vulgar flourish that made one fear that listeners were in for a glob of Hollywood schmaltz. Fortunately, the proper mood was established once Wei Zhou began to play his erhu -- a two-stringed Chinese fiddle with a soulful, emotionally labile tone, a sort of plaintive buzzing. A vigorous romp through the last movement of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto, with soloist Chuanyun Li, closed the program's first half. I was sorry that the whole concerto wasn't performed, for it sounded better than I had remembered. Xincao Li proved an admirably adaptive conductor, at home in everything he took on.

The second part of the evening was devoted to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," with violinist Yunzhi Liu. This is one of those pieces that is played so often on the radio that it isn't heard in concert much anymore. A pity, for it really is a masterpiece -- colorful, inventive, exciting and shot throughout with marvelously rich passages for the solo violinist.

The acoustics at Strathmore remain a little mysterious. Where I sat for the first half on the lower level is a near-ideal place to hear orchestral music (the sound seems to come at you from all sides, including up from the floor), but there are some less resonant spots, too, especially in the side balconies.

Everybody in the hall seemed happy Saturday, however, at a concert studded with ovations.

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