REVIEW: Kahchun Wong and NY Phil Spark a New Lunar Year
Above: The New York Philharmonic performs Tan Dun’s Fire Ritual. Photo: Chris Lee
FEBRUARY 7, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
The New York Philharmonic's stage shell was illuminated in red and gold for the annual concert celebrating the Lunar New Year. Singaporean rising star conductor Kahchun Wong, currently chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, made his Philharmonic debut in this auspicious event. The festive and invigorating program was adventurous and balanced, and the celebratory audience was deeply engaged and grateful.
Opening with Li Huanzhi's 1956 composition, Spring Festival Overture, Wong's energy on the podium abounded. As if given the keys to a shiny new sports car, he relished in the powerful machine at the tip of his baton. But only occasionally did he engage the highest gear. The bright, cheerful character of the overture set the right tone for the evening, traditional Chinese folk tunes enfolded into a Western classical format, as if Dvořák had penned the score for an IMAX film about China.
Award winning violinist Bomsori Kim then joined the orchestra as soloist in the U.S. Premiere of a new violin concerto by the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) called Fire Ritual. Subtitled "A Musical Ritual for Victims of War," the tone turned suddenly more somber than the Overture, but appropriate, as remembrance of those lost is a part of celebrating the holidays, too. Inspired by Tan Dun's research into ancient music rituals, which he describes as a "circle -- [it] always starts from the center and the conductor and the soloist, like a shaman trying to talk to the people through special sounds." Musicians scattered around the house, Kim entered from the rear, playing a long single D, as she walked along the aisles toward the stage, Wong facing the audience, back to the stage, in a ceremonious fashion. Tan Dun's violin writing employs Chinese ritualistic and court music sounds and gestures, and the rhetoric being fully fleshed out and deeply emotional.
The very sectional piece is broken up by pounding, dancing outbursts from the orchestra, liberal use of percussion instruments, and various outré techniques such as rhythmic turning of the pages (the sound of the paper being a percussive effect), and vocal effects. There is a passage replicating a panoply of birdcalls (a section called "Birds in Heaven") and a bittersweet, lyrical ending introduced by a mournful, crying trumpet solo, answered by rich, gratifying harmonies for the strings. Kim's playing was superb, an extended cadenza involved long tones from all over the fiddle's range, and all of the piece's technical challenges were swept up into a heartfelt call for remembrance.
The thirty-minute work was followed by nicely contrasting and lighter fare. Soprano So Young Park lent her plush coloratura to the Queen of the Night's famous aria "Die Hölle Rache," articulating the famous high staccato notes with ace accuracy. Her tense disposition and strained hand gestures befitted the rage being expressed in Mozart's demanding aria, but also made me wonder if she was straining to hit the highest notes. A traditional Korean song, Shin Ariang, followed, in a simple, understated arrangement.
The program rounded out with another fire-related orchestral work, Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite (in the popular 1919 version), one of the great show pieces for modern orchestra. Here again, Wong had strong ideas about what to bring out, and how it should be paced, and the Philharmonic gamely obliged. The first movement's creepy, lugubrious beginning and dramatic journey through shimmering strings and adrenaline-filled harp glissandi, to the frenetic, magical woodwinds as the Firebird takes flight, was suitably epic.
The Philharmonic's splendid woodwind section also brought supreme delicacy to the serene Princess's Rondo. Wong's scintillating take on the driving "Infernal dance of King Kashchei," an insidious scherzo-like movement had the low brass playing incisively, and built to a swirling climax. The string tremolos at the end of the Berceuse, before the piece's glorious Finale resounds triumphantly, were replete with suspense, and the release was palpable.
This would have been a fine ending to the concert, but as if in the place of an encore, the concert concluded with Chinese composer Liu Yuan's Train Toccata, a gimmicky, but fun, tone poem for orchestra depicting the locomotion of a train. The snare drum, chu-ga-chu-ga-ing away, capped by a truly admirable orchestral imitation of a train whistle in the woodwinds, the piece would work well as music for a chase scene in a Western, but this was a pleasure ride.
It was a delightful welcome to the Year of the Pig, and the theme of fire was unifying (even if fire’s relevance to the occasion was lost on me). I hope New York will see more of these guest artists, especially Maestro Wong, whose point of view on the podium is confident and well-communicated.