There's no resisting Lookingglass' alluring 'Lover'
By EHDY WEISS Theater Critic October 6, 2013 4:14PM
Rae Gray (from left), Deanna Dunagan and Tim Chiou in "North China Lover" at Lookingglass Theatre.
‘THE NORTH CHINA LOVER’
When: Through Nov. 10
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Tickets : $36-$70
Info: (312) 337-0665; lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Updated: October 7, 2013 7:37PM
Marguerite Duras, the French writer and filmmaker, was born in 1914, in what we now call Saigon. She was a child of the French colonial world of Indochina, as well as of a troubled family in which her mother, a teacher, barely eked out a living for her and her two brothers after the departure of their father.
At the age of 16 (she may have been even younger), the precocious, alienated Duras met a handsome, wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese man while taking the ferry to her school. Their love affair would obsess her for the remainder of her long, eventful life, finding its way into several quasi-autobiographical novels, and then into the 1992 French film “The Lover.”
Now, in “The North China Lover,” an altogether exquisite Lookingglass Theatre premiere, adapter-director Heidi Stillman has worked a small miracle of artistic transubstantiation, creating a play that magically combines the meditative poetry of the page, the dreamy luminosity of cinema and the vivid reality of the stage. This is a real beauty of a show — erotic, exotic, psychologically probing and full of meticulously detailed performances. Intended for mature audiences (it contains an exceptionally lovely nude scene), it spins a story that has as much to do with memory, loss, money, exile, racism and cruelty as it does with love.
Leading us back in time is the figure of Duras, the writer “M,” played by Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan, in a sly, rueful, characteristically understated turn that is at once detached and tinged with pain.
Rae Gray, with her slender figure, porcelain skin, doll-like face and intriguingly flat voice, embodies the writer’s adolescent incarnation, “The Child.” Notably dressed by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic in a pale green shift and boyish felt hat, Gray deftly captures both the innocence and preternatural worldliness of her character.
In the crucial role of “The Lover,” an opium-smoking playboy who has never had to work but is tied to Chinese tradition, there is Tim Chiou. He is remarkable. Beyond the fact of his physical beauty and grace, he suggests a man in whom both guile and guilt, the forbidden and the required, create a fascinating tension.
But every character in this complex, disturbing story is expertly limned. Amy J. Carle is remarkable as “The Mother” — a woman of total awareness and immense charm, who clearly understands the tragedy of her own life, and her children’s, yet somehow maintains an open heart even when faced with humiliation. And as Helene, The Child’s adoring school friend, Allison Torem is wholly beguiling as the nerdy girl who can only dream of what her more daring (and more damaged) pal is actually living out.
Walter Owen Briggs is ideal as Pierre, The Child’s sadistic older brother and mama’s boy, with JJ Phillips as Paulo, his terrified younger brother, and Tracy Walsh as the Woman in Red, the lonely, promiscuous wife of a local French official.
Daniel Ostling, that genius of a set and lighting designer, has created what is essentially a series of black boxes (with a revolve stage for the all-important Chinese bed that exerts such a powerful effect), so the whole story unspools as if it were a movie. Equally brilliant is the playing of Betti Xiang, a virtuoso on the erhu (the two-stringed Chinese fiddle), whose music magically conjures all the intoxicating sights, sounds and alluring “foreignness” of this work’s haunting time and place.
Chinese Fine Arts Society brings "Rhythms of China" to Chicago
From the gentle breeze of the prelude titled “Tiger grinding teeth,” to the dynamic ending piece “Monkey”, played by a drum team, with a rich revelation of emotions with scores performed on violin, erhu, pipa, piano, and flute in between, the Rhythms of Chinaconcert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion last night was a very moving and superb program.
“We’re very excited to present such a wonderful ensemble to Chicago,” Julia Ma, Board President of the Chinese Fine Arts Society (CFAS), said to me at the reception before the concert.
Based in Chicago, CFAS has had a history of 30 years. It was set up by Ma’s mother, Barbara Tiao, who was a piano teacher and was aspired to promote the appreciation of Chinese culture via music, dance, and visual arts.
The entire program last night was mesmerizing. Sitting on the second row from the stage, I was able to observe the musicians in close range and hear the nuances of every tune and beat by every single instrument. I was very touched. The “Three Humoresques” played by violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Minghuan Xu mesmerized me, and my emotion was raised to another notch by “Mian Jiang Hong“, a piece composed to praise Yue Fei, a historical hero, by Pei Lu and was played by Pine and pianist Winston Choi. By the time Pine and Betti Xiang, who played Erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, made the Duet penetrate to my heart, tears welled up in my eyes.
Ma introduced Conrad Tao, the composer of the Duet, as a very talented young man of 19, winner of CFAS's previous competitions. The audience applauded with deep appreciation.
All the numbers presented last night, including Sojourners Song by Daniel Lo, Lakescape by Lei Liang, and Night Impressions by Vivian Fung were award-winning pieces. They combined the instruments from the West and East together and expressed a well of emotions—to me, mostly pride, longing, and excitement.
Ma said CFAS recently hired its executive director and is making the transition from a volunteer-based non-profit organization to a professionally run one. I wish them success and look forward to seeing more wonderful programs such as Rhythms of China to Chicago in the future.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.
New director Mei-Ann Chen a perfect fit for Sinfonietta
By Andrew Patner August 15, 2011 6:38pm
In taking the reins of any group, it’s rarely easy to follow a founder.You might think things would be even more difficult for a young Asian woman in becoming only the second music director in the 25-year history of the Chicago Sinfonietta, a group started in part to advance African Americans in classical music.But Sunday evening at the Pritzker Pavilion, Taiwanese-born Mei-Ann Chen made the transition seem as natural as a beautiful summer day in Millennium Park.Chen, 38, has led the Sinfonietta before to strong positive responses, two years ago as a part of her audition, and last season as a part of the baton passing from founder Paul Freeman, whom Chen calls “my wonderful musical hero.” But this was the her first real chance to say hello to Chicago from the podium. After seeing and hearing her talk to an audience, vamp, crack wise and move about the stage to greet soloists with genuine enthusiasm, it’s clear that, along with her strong musical abilities, Chen has real people skills, non-threatening self-confidence and a serious understanding of the Sinfonietta’s mission as “a national model for inclusiveness and innovation.”She seems to be just the conductor the orchestra needs, too. In a 90-minute free program before a focused and cheering audience, Chen led movements of works by Afro-British and African-American composers; a collaborative work with the Sones de Mexico folk ensemble; a suite of excerpts from the Chinese “Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto, transcribed for the stringed erhu ; the latter half of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” and in an unusual but effective spot as a program closer, Leonard Bernstein’s jaunty overture to his “Candide.” In all of these works — from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1899 “Dance negre” through the rondo of the 1953 Sinfonietta No. 1 for strings by his namesake, the much-missed Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, to the Mexican, Chinese and Euro-American classical staples — Chen displayed both a crispness and a sense of shading and nuance that allowed these fine musicians to be heard at their best. That she showed keen understanding of these varied styles and true finesse in an outdoor venue new to her should mean great things for this new partnership.The six members of Sones played seductively in Gustavo Leone’s orchestration of leader Victor Pichardo’s “Encuentro: Poema Sinfonica,” a suite of Yucatecan dances inspired by the early 16th century encounter of a Spanish sailor with Mayan culture. Betty Xiang has been Chicago’s erhu star for 20 years, and she again was in her East meets West element in Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s concerto.“I never planned to make a career so linked to a mission,” Chen told the audience. “I became a conductor actually to express myself, as I was a very shy child. But this group and its connections to the communities of Chicago is such an inspiration, my goal is to make this the mightiest and most impactful boutique orchestra in America.” The cheering crowd at the Pritzker seemed convinced that she’ll do just that.
CSO's "Crouching Tiger" leaps high
CSO's "Crouching Tiger" leaps high
CSO's "Crouching Tiger" leaps high
By Kyle MacMillan
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic
Posted: 05/15/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
Updated: 07/18/2011 02:43:40 PM MDT
Rarely does a contemporary work headline a mainstream symphonic concert, and movie music is almost always relegated to a pops program if it gets performed at all.
But Saturday was an evening of exceptions, as the Colorado Symphony spotlighted a 2000 work that wrapped both into one — Tan Dun's "Crouching Tiger" Concerto for Erhu, Flute, Percussion and Strings (adapted from his score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Tan, one of the most famous of the Chinese composers who emerged after the Cultural Revolution, created a captivating, evocative work with genuine emotional depth. It inventively blends Eastern and Western traditions and incorporates a range of exotic, imaginatively orchestrated sounds.
The featured instrument is the erhu, a Chinese folk fiddle, which soloist Betti Xiang played upright in her lap. It achieves an extraordinary range of effects, from wailing to wavering sounds similar to those of the theremin, but most striking is its haunting, singing line.
To call Xiang a virtuosa would be to understate matters. She was completely at one with this amazing instrument, delivering a technically dazzling and deeply expressive performance.
Also deserving kudos were several soloists in the orchestra, including Catherine Peterson on alto flute and piccolo player Julie Duncan Thornton, who shared a few striking duets with Xiang.
Because of its intricate construction and many unconventional elements, this is no easy work to perform. But guest conductor Scott Yoo made sure that everything was precisely in its place and deftly shaped the overall interpretation.
Yoo, a potential music-director candidate, also delivered a memorable version of Igor Stravinsky's 1919 Suite from "The Firebird."
Fill-in Rous is rousing in conducting debut
by Richard Nilsen-May. 16, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The Valley was introduced to a second conductor this week, as the Phoenix Symphony assistant conductor Benjamin Rous led the symphony the day after the whirlwind of Gustavo Dudamel blew through town with the LA Philharmonic.
Phoenix Symphony: 'Crouching Tiger Concerto'
Reviewed Thursday, May 13, 2010, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
Rous' debut came as a fill-in for the scheduled En Shao, who had to cancel for problems with his visa and the ash cloud of the volcano in Iceland with the unpronounceable name.
Rous did himself proud.
The first half featured the "Crouching Tiger Concerto," by Chinese composer Tan Dun, cobbled together from his film score for the Ang Lee film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The soloist was Betti Xiang playing the Chinese two-string fiddle called the erhu.
As a concerto, it was a great film score. It didn't have six movements, so much as it was six cues. Originally written for Yo-Yo Ma's cello, the substitution of the erhu added some Chinese atmosphere, but also an audio problem: The erhu is so tiny and small-voiced that it had to be amplified, and while we watched Xiang center stage, the sound of her instrument came from up top of the side of the stage from giant hanging speakers, while the orchestra sounded live and centered, creating an aural cognitive dissonance that interfered with the ability to hear the music as a unified whole.
Xiang's performance was a delight, even if the music wasn't all that memorable. Great film; great score; not-so-hot concerto.
The second half was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that overly familiar bete noire, played to death for 200 years. Rous played the first movement at a comfortable tempo, allowing it the expressivity that many modern conductors wring out of it by racing through.
The second movement was brisk but had some inspired moments, including some nice pauses near the end. Too often conductors forget the incredible tension that can be created from momentary silences.
It all came to a blazing end, and Rous can be proud of a tremendous performance with his musicians.
Chicago CLASSICAL REVIEW
West meets East as
Sinfonietta kicks off transitional season
by Lawrence A. Johnson
Sun Oct 04, 2009 at 8:55 pm
The Chicago Sinfonietta’s 23rd season marks a gradual changing of the guard. A variety of guest conductors will take the helm of the orchestra for what, in essence, is a round of public auditions for the opportunity to succeed Paul Freeman, the Sinfonietta’s founder and outgoing music director.
Sunday afternoon’s generous season-opening program at Dominican University in River Forest to be repeated Monday night at Orchestra Hall presented the local debut of the Taiwan-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen, along with two talented concerto soloists.
Chen, former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony who is taking up the same post in Baltimore this fall, looks like a gently amiable college professor, yet she is clearly a dynamic figure firmly in charge on the podium. The Sabei Dance (from Sabei Suite No. 2 by the Chinese Canadian composer An Lun Huang) offers a kind of Eastern-flavored Khachaturian yet made a rousing opener, with Chen drawing a blazing and propulsive performance from the Sinfonietta.
Chen was equally impressive in the more subdued canvas of Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose). The Sinfonietta couldn’t quite deliver the requisite luminosity and tonal sheen, but this was a sensitive rendering, alive to the piquant chinoiserie of Laideronnette and presenting a notably characterful Belle et la Bete, the performance mitigated by some less than ethereal string solos in the Jardin Feerique finale.
The Butterfly Lovers Concerto is a hugely popular work in China, and increasingly, the rather complex tale of tragic, transcendent love by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao is proving a guilty pleasure for many Western violinists, including Gil Shaham.
Sunday’s concert offered the rare opportunity to hear the concerto, not in its standard violin version but performed on the erhu by soloist Betti Xiang.
The traditional Chinese stringed instrument, is similar to a body less violin, though it is held upright and bowed across the front like a cello. The erhu produces a twangy, exotic to Western ears timbre, yet Xiang conjured a wide dynamic range and a surprising array of unearthly sounds from the instrument.
The sentimental concerto is not exactly a timeless masterpiece but has undeniably lovely moments and was given a vital and expressive performance by Xiang with Chen eliciting highly responsive and energized playing from the orchestra.
In addition to providing a gracious introduction for guest maestra Chen, Freeman took the podium for the afternoon’s other soloist, pianist Jeremy Jordan. product of Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory School, Jordan first performed with the Sinfonietta at age 17 “our mascot,” as Freeman called him Sunday. Now 20 and a student at Juilliard, the solemn young man showed himself a greatly gifted pianist, blessed with a steel-fingered technique and a poetic sensibility well suited to Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
The youthful effort, written at age 19 and later substantially revised, remains the least played of the composer’s five piano concertante works, but the young Chicago native made a strong case for this neglected music. Rachmaninoff’s themes may be less indelible than in his later concertos and the finale goes on longer than it needs to, but the First still has its attractions, cast in Rachmaninoff’s brand of rhapsodic Russian melodism.
Jordan was alive to the caprice-like solo writing as well as the moments of unbridled virtuosity bringing imposing power to the first-movement cadenza and blazing prestidigitation to the final pages. Freeman and the orchestra provided equally fiery support.
The pianist showed more bravura and a wry wit with an unorthodox Wagner encore Jordan’s own clever and effective transcription of Siegfried’s Funeral March, the fistfuls of notes thrown off with impressive accuracy and sonorous impact.
by Bryant Manning
October 6, 2009
Mei-Ann Chen airmails resume to Sinfonietta
CONCERT REVIEW | Season’s first guest conductor floats like ‘Butterfly’
The Chicago Sinfonietta’s 23rd season, which opened Sunday afternoon in River Forest, spotlights several exciting guest conductors this year as the orchestra continues its search to replace the venerable Paul Freeman. While no one can ever quite fill the shoes of an orchestra’s founder and longtime music director, the pickings for a replacement are hardly slim. Taiwan-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen, who shared conducting duties in a highly engaging “ East vs. West” program Sunday at Lund Auditorium, brought immediate excitement with her caffeinated podium presence and near-fanatical respect for dynamics. Now enjoying a one-year post as assistant conductor to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony, Chen has a flair for a global repertoire that dovetails with the Chicago Sinfonietta’s mission. She led Chinese erhu player Betti Xiang in a wondrously sweeping account of “The Butterfly Lovers” Concerto (1959), a popular fairy tale scored to music by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The erhu, a tiny cello like instrument that sits on the lap, sounds closer to a sluggish violin with its teary-eyed tone and naturally bending notes. Xiang brought an expressive depth to her performance that only a 30-year veteran of the instrument can. An-Lun Huang’s sprightly “Saibei Dance” was a “Carmen”-esque thrill, while Ravel’s whimsical “Mother Goose” Suite had everyone looking back on their youth (and quite literally, too, with a crying baby in the audience interrupting several key moments). From the podium, Chen etched such a graphically shaded account in both works that it would be a shame to not see her back in town very soon. Chicagoan Jeremy Jordan, 20, is a tremendously talented young pianist in just his third year at the Juilliard School. With Freeman as conductor for Rachmaninoff’s seldom heard Piano Concerto No. 1, Jordan fused an old-school austerity with a punch-the-clock workmanship that recalled the old Russian composer himself. Jordan isn’t a virtuoso who strives to draw eyes to himself, and you could see this best in his soberly drawn cadenzas. He didn’t rhapsodize carelessly, either, with the innately flowery poetry of the andante, and we thank for him it.With a harder-edged tone and natural booming bass, Jordan could benefit from bringing out more treble in his playing. To his credit, balances between orchestra and piano were often weighted to the former, which should have improved when the program was repeated Monday in the cleaner acoustical space of Orchestra Hall. Jordan’s jazz chops also informed an impressive encore, his own transcription of Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral March from “Gotterdammerung.” With Jordan filling out the work’s violent episodes to create a three-dimensional canvas, it was inspiring to see a young musician so confidently setting his place at the table with a musical God.
The Daily Gazette
Miller, ASO combine for a fine show at the Palace
October 28, 2007
ALBANY-- The Albany Symphony Orchestra under conductor David Alan Miller did some superb work Saturday night at the Palace Theatre. Playing before a huge crowd, many on their way to the gala afterward, the program began with the Overture to Wagner's "Tannhauser."
The work was new for both the orchestra and Miller. The orchestra's sound was mellow, and the long sustained lines breathed. Connections between phrases could have been more seamless and the various wind chorales more homogenous, but overall, it was a successful foray into Wagner's music. "The Butterfly Lovers Concerto" by Gang Chen and Zhan-Hao He with celebrated Chinese erhu player Betti Xiang was exotic yet wonderfully accessible. The erhu is a two-stringed, bowed instrument that sounds a bit like a viola. The piece, which is extremely popular in China, follows an ancient Romeo and Juliet-like legend in which the erhu sings the part of Juliet and the principal cellist is Romeo.
Xiang was marvelous and played with great passion. Her lyrical lines insinuated in and out of the tones, mostly over modal scales, and she played many very fast passages with great clarity. The orchestra parts, which were not complex or sophisticated, ranged from Puccini-like lyricism to the rowdy kind of stuff found in a movie score for a John Ford western.
The crowd loved it, and Xiang played an encore called "The Harvest" by Zhou Wei that showed off even more of her virtuosity.
But from the first moments of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," the orchestra was on another plane. Miller has conducted the work many times with other orchestras, but not with the ASO, and the familiarity showed. Rather than feeling his way, he knew what he wanted, and the orchestra worked with that center. Everything was superbly delineated: the quality of sound, pitch, dynamic ranges, ensemble, feeling and musicality.
It was wonderful to listen to this masterpiece written in 1830 by a 27-year-old who was going through all the mysteries, agonies and ecstacies of a love affair.
Miller and the orchestra caught the flavor, the moods and the passions with exuberance, charm and much finesse.
The next ASO concert is Nov. 16 with Michael Morgan conducting Yarnell, Grieg and Prokofiev.
ASO all over the map, in a good way
By JOSEPH DALTON
First published: Sunday, October 28, 2007 review
ALBANY-- China by way of Germany with a long final stopover in a land of hallucination. That was the itinerary for Saturday night's gala concert at the Palace Theatre of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Alan Miller. The program's centerpiece was the "Butterfly Lovers" concerto by Gang Chen and Zhan-Hao He, with soloist Betti Xiang playing the erhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese instrument. When it premiered in 1958, the concerto touched a chord in China that continues to vibrate. Its story is about the ill-fated love shared by two youngsters, but the piece resounds with a triumphant nationalistic spirit. Stylistically, the "Butterfly Lovers" was a prototype of the East-West musical fusion that continues to fascinate composers. There is an unmistakable Asian sound and a secure grasp of Western orchestration. But the piece also draws heavily on orchestral cliches that were long ago relegated mostly to the realm of film scores. Big melodies are reprised again and again, and the ASO delivered them with dignity and confidence. By inviting a soloist to perform on the erhu, rather than the violin for which the concerto was originally scored, Miller added some fresh color and even a bit of fascination to the performance. Xiang plays with a tone that can be sweet and singing or fierce and impassioned, and it arrives as if by magic from an instrument that at a distance appears to be little more than two crossed sticks resting on a little box. A native of Shanghai and an American resident since 1996, Xiang has performed with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and last year she and Miller gave the "Butterfly Lovers" in a subscription program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her brief encore Saturday included a few tapped rhythms on the instrument's body and was as clever and enjoyable as anything in the preceding concerto. Masterpieces well executed and faithfully interpreted made up the balance of the program. In a switch, the brass didn't have to wait until the night's end for their hard work. In Wagner's "Tannhauser" overture, which opened the program, they grew from a near whisper to a mighty roar. After intermission, Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" was a searing emotional journey. The highlights, as usual, came at the end, with the bloody "March to the Scaffold" and chilly "Dream of the Witches," surely a nod to the Halloween season.
CSO weaves a tapestry of sounds - concert review
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA at the
by Marta Tonegutti Friday, September 15, 2006
A fine tapestry of sounds and colors was woven Wednesday night by the musician of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by David Alan Miller in a special appearance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
As the first of two free outdoor concerts that conclude Millennium Park's Blockbuster Week and continue the yearlong Silk Road Chicago celebration, the event drew an enthusiastic audience, who braved the inclement weather to hear the CSO and guest soloist Betti Xiang, performing on the erhu, a traditional two-string Chinese fiddle.
The program, skillfully attuned to the occasion, featured the signature mixing of Eastern and Western influences of the Silk Road, made here particularly relevant by the presence of the 1959 concerto "The Butterfly Lovers" by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Inspired by a centuries-old Chinese romantic folk tale, it's a work as popular in its home country as it is virtually unknown here.
The program also included two beloved titles of the Western classical music canon, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" overture and Berlioz"s "Symphonie fantastique," which were rescued from their hyper-familiarity and usual blockbuster effect by the crisp, unsentimental reading offered by these superb musicians and Miller, a conduct er familiar with the probing intricacies as well as the eclecticism of modern and contemporary music. He successfully applied the same clarity, rigor and freshness of thought to these quintessential Romantic pieces.
Tchaikovsky's overture set the tone, with Miller's intense but precise gestures guiding and containing the swelling of the orchestral sound in beautifully molded melodic phrases and cleanly shaped rhythmic patterns, which exposed the music's harmonic richness and made it all the more effective. Despite the problems posed by the use of outdoor amplification, which inevitably creates an altered and disembodied orchestral sound even for listeners in the pavilion, Miller used the full dynamic palette well, summoning delicate pianissimos and well-balanced crescendos of the work's familiar"love theme" toward the organ-like sonorities of the finale.
A radiant Xiang took center stage for "The Butterfly Lovers," claiming for her erhu the part originally composed for violin in imitation of the traditional Chinese fiddle. She mesmerized the audience as much with her virtuoso performance as with the instrument's plaintive voice-like quality, familiar to us through Chinese opera and now through cinema.
What came to life in the riveting dialogue between soloist and orchestra was a continuous piece of music in three long sections, compellingly infusing the Western symphonic forms with the Eastern sonorities of the pentatonic scale, and with highly expressive musical gestures derived from the Chinese operatic tradition.
A demanding cadenza for the solo erhu was beautifully executed, as were the melancholy exchanges between erhu and first cello, with the two instruments giving voice to the tale's unhappy lovers.
The second part of the program, devoted to Berlioz's expansive symphony, was as successful. Again, the amplification made it arduous to listen for nuances of sound and interpretation, but what came through was never the less eloquently satisfying. The piece served naturally as a showcase for CSO's impressive principal players, and for the whole woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.
Miller and the CSO made sure, however, that nothing got lost of Berlioz's inventive dramatic construction and colorful harmonies and orchestration, attacking each of the five sections with renewed energy and precision, and bringing the work, after the frenzied witched's dance, to a majestic close.
Let's rejoice, then, in a new CSO season that promises as much fantasy in its programming as it does in its mastery of musical execution.
Blockbuster' opener is rainy CSO triumph
by John von Rhein
Tribune Music Critic
Published September 15, 2006
Star-crossed lovers became storm-tossed lovers Wednesday at Millennium Park, where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the first of two free "Blockbuster Week" concerts.
A program built around real and fictional figures unlucky in love had the ill luck of being performed under a cold, misting rain that didn't clear up until the event was over. But the CSO soldiered bravely onward.
An estimated 2,500 listeners turned out as the CSO previewed Symphony Center's season long contributions to Silk Road Chicago, a citywide celebration of music and art spearheaded by Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. David Alan Miller conducted Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-Fantasy and Berlioz's "Symphonies Fantastique," but the only true cross-cultural event was a Chinese classical piece, "The Butterfly Lovers."
The violin concerto was composed in 1957 by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, two composition students at the Shanghai Conservatory. It is a musical retelling of an ancient Chinese folk tale about thwarted lovers who find peace and happiness only in death, when they turn into a pair of butterflies.
Western and Eastern musical elements merge with a naivete and sophistication that make the three-part work so sweetly appealing. The solo part, played here on the two-string Chinese fiddle known as the erhu, borrows its sliding melodic intervals from Shanghai opera, its techniques from standard Western concertos. The lush scoring, simple harmonies and obvious pictorial effects often give it the feel of romantic movie music.
The Chinese erhu virtuosa Betti Xiang was the astonishing soloist. She "sang" the female half of the doomed couple with an agility, subtlety and lyrical grace any opera singer would envy. The erhu is played like a cello, but in Xiang's sensitive hands, it could soar with a violin's range and color, or skitter like a stone thrown across a rushing stream. The orchestra handled the pretty accompaniment, well, prettily.
Miller, a familiar figure to ravinia audiences but not to downtown, led a lyrical and dramatic account of the Tchaikovsky tone poem. Also, what emerged from the amplification was a rather pale and tubby reflection of what the CSO can achieve in Romantic warhorses such as this.
The Berlioz was unexceptional for its first four movements but came alive (as so many "Fantastiques" do) in the final "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," complete with ominous offstage chimes, sardonic wails from the high clarinet and macabre chatterings from the violinists' bows.