On January 29th, the Shaanxi Province Song and Dance Theatre National Orchestra, conducted by Songbo Yan, with vocalists Dongfeng Mi and Jianxue Feng joined members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Francesco Lecce-Chong, with Concertmaster Robert Chen for a Symphony Center Special Concert at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan. Entitled “Chinese New Year Celebration”, it was sponsored by Ling Z. and Michael C. Markovitz, and introduced by Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association Life Trustee Ling Z. Markowitz and Hong Lei, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China, who ushered in the Year of the Rooster with an upbeat speech calling for unity between out two countries.
The first half of the program was performed by the visiting orchestras soloists and ensembles, including its vocalists; the second half was performed by the Civic Orchestra, which is the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with solo violin and Concertmaster Robert Chen; the encore had members of the two orchestras playing together.
The selections were intended to showcase “the rich history of Chinese music, from the traditional to the contemporary”, and featured an intriguing array of traditional instruments. Some of the most fascinating were the yangqin, a hammered dulcimer played with bamboo sticks; the guzheng, a desk-like instrument akin to a zither, played with the fingers; the ruan, sometimes called a Chinese guitar; the sheng, an ancient free-reed pipe organ; and the paigu or tuned drums.
The first half of the program, performed by the Chinese musical guests, consisted of:
-“Spring Festival Prelude” from “Spring Festival Suite”, a Chinese work for orchestra composed between 1955 and 1956 by Huanzhi Li, which depicts a celebration of the Chinese New Year; it is lively and festive, and the overture portion was broadcast into space during China’s first lunar probe!
-“The Charm of Qin”, by Xiaofeng Zhang and Fangliang Wang, 1991, an award winner that contains within it numerous musical elements and styles, and has become a national classic.
-“Ducks Quacking and Tigers Grinding Teeth”, by Zhishun An, an extremely clever percussion-based performance; the drum music uses techniques such as sliding, knocking, rapping, clapping, to create the sounds of the creatures emulated in the most vivid and witty ways.
-“A Place Faraway”, by Luobin Wang, also known as “In a Faraway Place”, a piece that was selected in 1993 (along with another of this renowned songwriter’s pieces) as a Chinese musical classic of the 20th century. It was accompanied by most moving vocals and heartfelt gestures by Dongfeng Mi.
-“Song of the Daughter” from the film “Yellow Earth”, 1984; lyrics by Kaige Chen; in this tale a soldier is charged with recording local songs for army use and learns of the hardships of peasant life, particularly those of a girl forced, sans dowry, to marry a significantly older man- she laments feelingly in stunning vocals by Jianxue Feng.
-“Three Hulian” by Dayao Cheng, a fine example from an antique Chinese style of opera known as Qinqiang.
The last piece before the intermission was “Chang’an She Huo”, by Jiping Zhao and Rirong Lu, 1981, based on inspiration from the Qingiang opera, and frequently performed combined with folk dances and other popular entertainments.
The second half of the program consisted almost entirely of “The Butterfly Lovers”, a concerto by Gang Chen and Zhanhao He. Known as “China’s most popular romantic story," it is an orchestral adaptation of an ancient legend. It contains a stunning violin solo using some Chinese techniques which was beautifully performed by the Civic Orchestra with virtuoso soloist Robert Chen.
For it’s finale, members of the guest orchestra joined the Civic Orchestra in presenting the traditional “Jasmine Flower”, a relatively brief, sprightly and lyrical tune.
The program was absolutely lovely, with the musicians all dressed in black, the guest musicians sometimes wearing lustrous crimson stoles, the great concert hall and stage bedecked with red decorative lanterns and emblems. The unusual instruments and highly trained solo vocalists, coupled with the energy and wit of the guest performers, the talent of the Civic Orchestra, the firm hand of both conductors and the brilliant violin solo of Concertmaster Robert Chen to make this a most memorable occasion.
For all the great performances at Symphony Center, including the concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Special series’, go to the Chicago Synphony Orchestra website
All photos by Todd Rosenberg