[piano/review] NCPA & Yuja, an atmosphere of little magic

After seeing Yuja kill it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing a Prokofiev concerto, I knew that I had to see her in D.C., playing Ravel’s piano concerto in G major. Ravel is rarely so unbridled and exuberant as in this piano concerto, which I know like the back of my hand, thus I was especially looking forward to this concert.

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The China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra (which I will heretofore refer to as NCPA) started off with a suite named Five Elements by Chinese composer Chen Qigang. It was overall a fascinating piece, using Chinese traditional music as the base. The composer utilized many tessitura extremes of the instruments, and I imagine, had meticulously written in dynamics– there were many subtle shifts in dynamic that the NCPA rendered particularly well. The piece also called for using the violin as a percussive, slightly off-key instrument, which I found to be novel, and further underlined the subtle atonality of the piece. Much of Five Elements reminded me of Peking opera in which each singer may be singing in a different key. Yet, the disharmony was skillfully fused by the orchestra to create a cohesive sound.

The next piece performed was Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, the piano solo played by Yuja Wang. First, I will comment on Yuja’s rendition: she was mostly on point for the concerto, limber and striking the bass with incredible confidence. Yet, sometimes I felt that the piano did not project well and was too soft particularly at the higher register, which could have been due to the piano itself– dead from C5 up, notes dying quickly if one does not take care to adjust one’s playing. The whole second movement was plagued by this problem. It was especially evident at a few tender moments in the second movement when the left hand was playing the standard dance chordal accompaniment, and was louder than the melody-playing right hand (left hand: mf, right hand: between a p and mp). There are several remedies, none of which are mutually exclusive: she could have restrained her left hand, pedaled more generously, been more meticulous about the movements of her right hand to keep the notes ringing for longer. I noted this issue back in March, but it seems like Yuja has not adjusted.

Under the direction of conductor Lü Jia, the NCPA is a new orchestra formed in 2009; this is its maiden tour in the United States. Nonetheless, without considering their fledgling status, NCPA handed in a disappointing performance. The concerto begins suddenly with a whip-crack, and I remember feeling unsettled– the whip-crack was not nearly as loud or spontaneous as it should be, an impression I carried with me the entire performance. The NCPA has many good individual players, but they do not play as a well-oiled machine together. For example, while the pace of the concerto was standard, the piece felt weighted and sluggish at many points. This concerto was inspired by Ravel’s travels in America and being exposed to jazz; if anything, this piece should have moments of exhilaration and fleetness. It also took the orchestra and Yuja several measures each time to fit to mood changes: sparkling, plaintive, what-have-you. There were also a few noticeable technical glitches: the flautist during her solos was having trouble with her pitch, and during the second movement where the flute trades off its held note to the oboe or clarinet, someone was noticeably off-key, around half a semitone. Perhaps I have been spoiled by listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra live for the past four years, but I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows quite high.

When it came time for applause, the audience felt largely the same way, consciously or unconsciously feeling the lack of enthusiasm and wonder in the performance. For the Yuja’s Prokofiev concerto in Boston, people leapt to their feet right away and she had to come for more than five rounds of applause. For Yuja’s Ravel concerto in D.C., perhaps 20% of the audience got almost grudgingly to their feet during the second round of applause; applause ended after the third round. In many ways, Ravel’s piano concerto is rather the more accessible than Prokofiev’s to an American audience, and if both performed with the same aplomb, I believe the Ravel would garner more popular praise. Yet, response was muted, just like the performance itself.

In contrast to their inertial rendition of the concerto, the NCPA flipped around completely and performed Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major with abandon. While Dvorák does call for a certain expansiveness and goldenness, Dvorák never intends to have a ruckus in the house. Brash and abrasive at times, NCPA was smashing table lamps and shouting at neighbors. I felt a queer parallel to modern Chinese classical music, especially the subgenre that is based on traditional forms and/or has nationalistic sentiments. This modern form is straightforward, broad, and at times, unforgivingly brash and spectacular; essentially, a typical Chinese boast. I doubt that the orchestra members or the conductor was thinking of purposefully playing in this fashion, but Symphony no. 8 came across as such. I do think that musicians have the right to interpret, but they also must consider the composer and their background and vision.

In the third movement, the NCPA finally relaxed and produced a beautiful cohesion, which I believe was helped by the melancholy melodic line with plenty of major and minor thirds– in Five Elements, the NCPA handled atonalism well, and as expected, handled the Bohemian harmonic nuances well. I was particularly drawn the fine colorations and expression by the lead oboist.

Finally, the NCPA played two encores, the first Antonin Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No. 3 and the second, Liang Xiao’s What a Wonderful Night. Again, I felt that the NCPA let it r-r-r-rip during the Dvorák, but this time, for some reason, they felt like they were actually enjoying themselves, keeping a breathless pace. What a Wonderful Night, another piece based on Chinese musical idiom, continued to highlight NCPA’s comfort with the weird things that are out of the Western tonal tradition, with beautiful subtle color changes laced throughout, the string players reverently plucking in an imitation of the guzheng and other traditional plucked Chinese instruments.

Reflecting on the concert afterwards, I wished the concerto could have been something like the Yellow River Piano Concerto or something markedly modern composed after the 1960s, but of course, a Ravel piano concerto will tend to draw more concert-goers than the Barber. This would have played to the NCPA’s strengths much more, though it would not have solved their problems as an orchestra. All told, the NCPA has the necessary ingredients to become a good orchestra, but this alone is not sufficient– it needs more guidance and coaxing in tightening and shaping its sound and movement.

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