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Entertainment & Arts

Review: A diplomatic China Philharmonic plays Disney Hall

Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Walt Disney Hall.
Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Walt Disney Hall.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times )

You must have heard about a president-elect last week talking on the telephone with the president of Taiwan, and thus, by evading protocol, possibly upending U.S. China policy. Now what?

I know. I know. This is no job for a music critic. But as long as the job qualifications for governance have loosened up, let me make a modest proposal. Don’t follow the dollar; follow the quarter note.

Classical music diplomacy has had some weight in modern American politics, and it just so happens that an opportunity presents itself anew. The China Philharmonic and Taiwan Philharmonic are coincidentally touring North America at the moment. The band from Beijing played at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night. Next Monday the Taipei ensemble takes its turn at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Orchestras and celebrated soloists have long had a way of warming relations, notably with the U.S. and Russia in the 1950s, but elsewhere as well. A month after angry South Americans spit upon Vice President Richard Nixon during a hoped-for goodwill tour in 1958, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic headed south and exuberantly patched things up.

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When Nixon as president went to China in 1972, Americans were but a vaguely understood evil to the Chinese people, and Nixon (likely remembering South America) personally arranged to send the Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing the next year. One cultural diplomat involved in that tour wrote 30 years later, “Now … in China, Beethoven survives, Madame Mao does not.”

Sure enough the China Philharmonic brought Beethoven to Disney Hall, along with Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony and a work by Chinese composer Qigang Chen. This is a new generation orchestra, founded in 2000 by Long Yu, who remains its artistic director (and also heads orchestras in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, along with running various Chinese music festivals, making him practically music director of all China). He brought along an even newer generation pianist, 12-year-old Serena Wang, as soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto.

The orchestra, which opened the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge with a blockbuster program five years ago on its last tour, has gotten better and more important. It is building its own concert hall in Beijing. The renderings of the translucent structure — set to open in two years and designed by the Chinese studio MAD, the same firm George Lucas called on for his proposed museum in California — are gorgeous. The acoustics will be by Yasuhisa Toyota, Disney Hall’s acoustician.

Though unfortunately poorly attended, the concert had its appropriately ambassadorial aspects, beginning with Chen’s “Enchantements Oubliés.”

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Moving to Paris after the Cultural Revolution to study with Messiaen, Chen combines elements of traditional Chinese music with an Impressionistic French sensibility. In another nice coincidence, the one commercial recording of this 2004 fantasy for strings, piano, harp and celesta is by none other than the Taiwan Philharmonic.

Chen has written pieces so beautiful you can hardly believe your ears, pieces so weird you can hardly believe he’s done them and, on a few occasions, pieces so bathetic (such as his score for the recent Zhang Yimou film “Coming Home”) you can hardly believe he is the same composer.

“Enchantements” falls somewhere in between. It opens in a seductively ancient Chinese realm, with a lavish harp flourish and suavely sliding strings. A recurrent melody can sometimes become cloying, but gripping instrumental effects remain an excellent counterforce.

One job a critic should not assume is to review a 12-year-old. Serena Wang, who made her first CD at 9, has been winning competitions, scoring major concert dates (such as this tour) and getting impressive numbers of hits on YouTube. That she has already mastered the technical aspects of Beethoven’s concerto, and can play it with accuracy and calm resolve, is an exceptional and inspiring achievement.

But she is far too young to be expected to have developed artistic personality or be thrust into the limelight. The many examples of child prodigies’ whose artistic and emotional development got arrested by the professional music machine should give pause. I hope she will be allowed the kind of childhood that produces healthy as well as great artists.

Yu’s way with the “New World” Symphony was the way of boldness. The full-bodied string section is his orchestra’s glory. The tone is big, and the players have a way of sweeping up a phrase and taking the listener along as if on a ride. The brass sound is big and raw and thrilling. But it was the winds that I found most intriguing in this performance.

It’s nice that the Chinese want to play an “American” symphony, although just how American Dvorák’s “New World” remains questionable. The Czech composer wrote the score in the U.S. for the New York Philharmonic and treated it as an example to American composers of how to use some native tunes as material to make a good old-fashioned European symphony.

For me, the best way to treat such cultural appropriation is to do more appropriation so that you wind up with something unrecognizable from the original. There was an intriguing hint of that Monday with the English horn solo in the second movement — the tune that got turned into the pseudo-spiritual “Goin’ Home.” The orchestra roster does not list English horn, but whoever played it brought an earthy tone and a tremulous slide from pitch to pitch that gave a subtle Chinese accent to the Czech-accented American music, adding character to overly familiar music. 

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In what would have been another perfect coincidence, the Taiwan Philharmonic also announced the “New World” for its tour program. Diplomatically avoiding competition, however, the orchestra will replace Dvorák with Tchaikovsky (the Fifth Symphony) in Costa Mesa. Still, one-China policy has never meant a one-orchestra policy. The more, and the more different, the better. 

mark.swed@latimes.com

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