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Music review: China Philharmonic performs at the new Valley Performing Arts Center

April 17, 2011 |  2:51 pm

The San Fernando Valley has an important new concert hall: the Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State Northridge. Finally the Valley has a comfortable hall with clean, well-defined sound and easy parking to call its own.

Beijing has an important newish orchestra: The China Philharmonic is 10 years old, which makes it a symphonic toddler still. As part of a sunny Southern California tour (Santa Barbara, Palm Desert, Costa Mesa, San Diego), the orchestra bypassed downtown L.A. for the new Northridge hall.

The orchestra -- which operates under the Radio, Film and Television Bureau of the People’s Republic of China -- also, of course, conveniently bypassed art world demonstrations downtown against the Chinese government’s crackdown on the controversial artist Ai Wei Wei. But China’s orchestra, with its clean, well-defined sound, suited the venue ideally, even if the fit between an orchestra and a state university was also troubling. Both outfits seem inclined (for fear of Beijing politicians or Sacramento ones?) to stick with the safe and bland.

First, though, a good word about the acoustics. Saturday’s concert was the first with an orchestra since the hall's opening in January. HGA Architects supplied a traditional hall with a traditional shoe-box shape with a proscenium stage. It seats about 1,700 but, with two balconies, is more grand than intimate.

The acoustical design by David A. Conant, however, is attractively intimate in its clarity. In an all-purpose hall, this is an admirable accomplishment.

But will the Valley Performing Arts Center turn out to be an all-purpose or a little-purpose venue? CalS tate Northridge has chosen the narrowest of mainstream popular entertainment, and not even much of that. Only five more events fill out the season. They include the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell and “An Evening with Shirley MacLaine: Award Winning Hollywood Icon.”

Unfortunately, the China Philharmonic managed to play into Northridge’s worst programming tendencies with a package of stale, overcooked Western chestnuts. It is pretty much the same program it is playing throughout the tour, and a striking one given the Chinese character of the orchestra.

Its founder and music director, Long Yu, seems to be the conductor of all China. He also heads the Guangzhou Symphony, the Shanghai Symphony and is artistic director of the Beijing Festival. The son of a composer, he has not neglected Chinese music nor new Western music. The China Philharmonic commissioned Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto in its first season and its principal guest conductor is the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

But on Saturday, the concerto was, to mix food metaphors, a Romantic cream puff -- Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 -- with an elegant French violinist, Renaud Capucon, as soloist.  The rest of the short program consisted of Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture, Borodin’s “Polovtsian March” from “Prince Igor,” Ravel’s “Boléro” and Puccini’s student “Preludio Sinfonico,” which is a rarity but no less a potboiler. 

The orchestra was seated with the winds and percussion on rows of risers behind the strings, which may have had something to do with the distinctness of its sound in this hall. The strings were slightly thin but tight. The winds were nasal and strong. The brass were piercing without being obnoxious. The tone colors of the percussion section stood out vividly.

The bass in this hall is terrific, and every cello pizzicato had just the right presence. The lower middle-range instruments, usually hard to hear, displayed a fine presence. The violas, so interestingly used by Berlioz but rarely heard, made themselves wonderfully known. The snare drum, placed in front of the orchestra for “Boléro,” had an energizing quality of electric circuits crackling.

Capucon (who will join his brother, cellist Gautier Capucon, in Brahms Double Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall later in the season) did his best to remove some of the sugar from Bruch’s concoction. In duller halls he would have been buried by the orchestra. In Northridge he could be heard as a model of finesse and good taste.

Yu led disciplined performances but also showed a quixotic flair for the acrobatic gesture, his arms sometimes sweeping on their sockets. The orchestra didn’t appear to mind (or, for that matter, notice).

But what a missed opportunity this was for both China and Northridge. There were no encores. The concert ended well before 10. Not adding a Chinese work to this short and unchallenging program makes this orchestra look complicit in the Chinese art crackdown.

Meanwhile, Cal State Northridge will now have to live down the fact that on Saturday night UCLA sent its student orchestra to Disney Hall to play a work by the excellent Chinese composer Ge Gan Ru.


$125-million Valley Performing Arts Center to debut with Moscow State Symphony

A star-studded opening for the Valley Performing Arts Center

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Valley Performing Arts Center. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times