Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni thought “Greensleeves” was a Chinese folk tune. Gioacchino Rossini probably knew the polka was not danced in China but nonetheless wrote “Petite Polka Chinoise.” Compositions based on impressions both knowledgeable and fanciful of China and its music were at the heart of “Chinoiserie,” a recital Thursday at the Freer Gallery of Art by pianist Jenny Lin. The program was also partially drawn from her “Chinoiserie” CD from 2000.
Lin’s percussive touch is suited to aggressive, dissonant music, but one often longed for a more caressed melody and varied attack. Minor technical blemishes and pedestrian phrasing in Francois Couperin’s “Les Chinois” and Rossini’s “Petite Polka Chinoise” seemed to indicate that some of the earlier pieces did not engage Lin’s musical imagination.
On the other hand, the musical selections often had little besides some association with China to recommend them. Between two settings of the famous 18th-century folk song “Mo Li Hua” (heard most famously in Puccini’s “Turandot”) and the endless improvisatory looping of Alexander Tcherepnin’s “Cinq etudes de concert,” there was enough noodling around on the pentatonic scale to stun a small cat.
The high point of the first half was Leo Ornstein’s “A la chinoise,” a depiction of a manic rickshaw ride through San Francisco’s Chinatown in a confusion of trills, clusters, clamorous shouts and cries, and other noise-inspired sounds. It went well with Albert Ketelby’s “In a Chinese Temple Garden,” a sort of cinematic soundtrack that would not have been out of place in a Charlie Chaplin film set in the Forbidden City. Performing a piano reduction, Lin added a welcome dramatic flourish by playing a gong where it was called for in the original orchestral score.
Downey is a freelance writer.