Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Richmond Symphony Masterworks: Beethoven, Sheng, Franck

My review of Richmond Symphony's most recent Masterworks concert ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch.

In discussing "Nanking! Nanking!" the phrase I use, "pounding the audience into shock," is not an exaggeration. The piece ends with about eight (I forgot to count) fortissimo repeated notes that made the word "rape" spring to my mind. (I later realized that the title "The Rape of Nanking" had been in my subconcious, though I've never read the book.)

I couldn't believe that was how the piece ended, and I suspect others in the audience had the same reaction. There was a pause of several seconds, and it wasn't until Fagen turned to Wei to shake his hand that applause began.

It's very hard to explain, especially in a written review that doesn't permit much, if any, first-person voice, the state of not liking a piece but being glad to have heard it. My not liking it was for two reasons, as was my gladness for hearing it.

I didn't like it because it didn't have anything especially new to add to the catalogue of music-that-imitates-violence, and because I'd just rather listen music that's more subtle, if not traditionally melodic.

I was glad to hear it for the reasons I mentioned in the article, and because, more specifically, it did have some very interesting aural pairings of the pipa with other sections and soloists the orchestra-- the pipa-contrabassoon duets, for example.

I still haven't answered the question, "Why the pipa?" Sheng writes that the solo instrument in "Nanking! Nanking!" has the role of victim, witness and survivor. Maybe giving this usually delicate-sounding instrument an often-violent line to play says something about the human capacity to adapt, to react, to act both basely and nobly, and about music's ability to reflect all aspects of our humanity.

Before beginning the piece, Fagen led three excerpts from "Nanking! Nanking!" with very brief remarks before each. I though the chosen bits were a little long, but I suppose that was necessary.

Fagen did an excellent job conducting the whole program, clearly composed and authoritative. However, the Egmont didn't have as much brightness to it as I thought it should. Is "new hall" still an excuse after 3 months? I don't know, not knowing what can be physically done to sharpen the sound and get rid of (or temper) excess boom and resonance.

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