Grant Park Music Festival Iris Dévoilée and More Review -- Melding Sounds of Exotic Chinese Opera with Western Instruments to Great Effect

When Chinese authorities sent Qigang Chen to a re-education school because he came from the educated classes they could probably little picture the day several decades later when his compositions would be chosen to showcase China to the world at the first Chinese-hosted Olympics in 2008.   

Neither could they, nor he, nor the group of Chinese musicians who performed his work Iris Dévoilée imagine the spectacular Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park where they performed last week, nor the enthusiastic reception of the crowd to this intriguing meld of classical Chinese Opera with modern classical music composition.


There was one “disciple of the Pear Garden”, as Chinese opera performers are still referred to, Meng Meng, who enchanted the crowd by performing in traditional Chinese Opera dress. 


Elegant soprano Wu Yanyu mesmerized us with her ability to meld with instruments, both Western and traditional Chinese, such that we at times were startled to find that we were no longer listening to her voice but rather to an instrument or vice versa.


Three traditional Chinese instruments were played as soloists with the Grant Park Orchestra accompanying. 


Wei-Yang Andy Lin, who is an award-winning violist, played the erhu for this performance, which is a two-stringed bowed instrument often nicknamed a Chinese violin.


Yang Wei, whom some Chicagoans may recall as part of the touring Silk Road Project led by Yo-Yo Ma, played the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute.


 Yang Yi played the zheng, a 21-string Chinese zither.


Remarkably, at many times the Western instruments of the Grant Park Music Orchestra took on the tonality of their traditional Chinese instrumental soloists.  At times the collaboration was all whistles or horns.  We heard swirling nests of bees.  The nature of the tonal Chinese language was such that Meng Meng’s soprano words moved into singing notes seamlessly.   As if on cue, the birds that seem to have nested in the speakers of the Pritzker Pavillion sound system joined in. 


Iris dévoilée has nine movement that en toto are meant to represent the female archetype.  Indeed, in the movement called “Hysterical” we hear ear-splitting screams from both sopranos.  Before you rankle at imagined misogyny know that the first movement is called “Ingenious”.


In the movement “Voluptuous” we hear waves, perhaps the perfect segue to the whirling Fauré and Ravel pieces that followed intermission.


Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, Op 80  by Fauré  was reportedly written for a production of a symbolist play by this name performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1898.  The program notes indicate that the play “embodied the Symbolists’ philosophy that mood is more important than plot.”  Indeed, this is a work of deep moods, ending with a “mournful elegy of quiet intensity.”


As outdoor concerts have it, a parade of sirens interrupted the pause between the first two movements.  Carlos Kalmar with great humor leaned back and seemed to have all the time in the world.  He KNEW that the soft and sweet harp and flute duo that began that movement was well worth the wait.


Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, Poème Choréographiqe”,  was reportedly described by the composer as “an inescapable whirlpool”, that tears apart at the Viennese Waltz.   Indeed, like many Ravel pieces we felt water swirling and floating around us.  The change in tempo in the finale provided just the right jolt of electric energy to this night of musical titillation.


The season is still young and in the Grant Park Music Festival promises to give us the A-Z of classical music and beyond.   If you missed this foray into a Chinese-Western musical connection and the sassy Pink Martini jazz-inspired concert the week before don’t let the summer keep slipping away.


Concerts are free, picnics on the lawn encouraged, and pre- or post- concert tours of the beautiful gardens and sculptures in Millennium Park combine to make for perfect summer evenings in Chicago.


Rehearsals are also held daily and are free to the public.

For a complete calendar file://localhost/visit http/



Photos:  Courtesy of Grant Park Orchestra


Photos of Bows/costume:  Peter Kachergis


Pritzker Pavillion photo:  Patrick Pyszka



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