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Music review: Shanghai Symphony in Santa Barbara

November 22, 2009 |  4:28 pm

In the field where Chinese composers and performers and Western classical music converge, East has been successfully meeting West long enough that the concept is closer to a norm -- or at least accepted cultural fact -- than a novelty. What remains rare, though, are local live concert encounters with Chinese ensembles dealing with such hybrids. That made the performance of the Shanghai Symphony, Friday at the Granada in Santa Barbara, a special occasion.

Yuja-wang-by-felix-broede-for-dg-43 New and old matters were at hand, as China’s most venerable orchestra, dating to 1879, kicked off the 91st season of the Community Arts Music Association. After dealing fluently with Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff (with young Chinese piano sensation Yuja Wang doing the lush and clean-machined honors on the “Rach 2” concerto), the orchestra delved into the definitively East-meets-West score of notable Chinese composer (living in Paris) Qigang Chen’s “Iris dévoilée (Iris unveiled)” and gave it a measured, captivating and discernibly “home turf” reading. For a change, the musical forces themselves, from a full, taut orchestra to Chinese instrumental soloists, came from the eastern end of the East-West spectrum.

Generally, the Shanghai Symphony --  which will perform in Costa Mesa on Tuesday -- is an impressive ensemble, led with precision and controlled passion by conductor Long Yu. They came out swooning on Friday, with Mussorgsky’s misty-wistful “Dawn on the Moscow River” (from his opera “Khovanshchina”) and a plush yet clear-headed take on Rachmaninoff. At the piano, the lovely and lithe Yuja showed -- to cop a cliché -- maturity beyond her years (22), resisting the Rach-ish temptation to venture into overly florid or self-absorbed stylization.

Divided into nine varied fragments, Qigang’s 2001 piece works the theme of the feminine spirit, inspired by the Iris of Greek mythology fame, the goddess of the rainbow. A rainbow motif, in fact, suits Qigang’s multi-colored approach well, as the music veers from distinctly Chinese sonorities to Western classical elements, often with a clear French accent, from Impressionism to echoes of the composer’s former teacher, Olivier Messiaen. In the main, the musical language(s) are seductive to the ears, occasionally punched up with more dissonant and abstract colors.

For traditional Chinese instruments (some of which Western classical audiences have become familiar with through other Chinese composers’ showcasing efforts), the composer includes the pipa (Jia Li), erhu (Nan Wang), and the proto-koto guzheng (Xin Sun). Less familiar is the distinctive dual presence of a rich Western-style female voice (Xiaoduo Chen) and the sharper-toned sound of Peking Opera tradition (Meng Meng). Qigang traverses various worlds and musical resources with his ambitious piece and does so with persuasive, culture-blending aplomb.

-- Josef Woodard

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa; 8 p.m. Tue.; $30 to $250. (714) 556-2787.

Photo: Yuja Wang. Credit: Deutsche Grammophon.