Philadelphia Orchestra marks Chinese Lunar New Year with virtual concert

by Michael Caruso
Posted 2/18/21

The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year with a “virtual” concert that aired Feb. 4-11. The entire program was dedicated to the music of celebrated Chinese …

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Philadelphia Orchestra marks Chinese Lunar New Year with virtual concert


The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year with a “virtual” concert that aired Feb. 4-11. The entire program was dedicated to the music of celebrated Chinese composer Tan Dun: his “Butterfly Violin Concerto,” composed at the turn of the 20th century into the 21st, and his “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women,” which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 2017. Violinist Gil Shaham was the soloist in the former and Philadelphia Orchestra principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen was the featured soloist in the latter.

Guest conductor David Robertson led the Philadelphians and Shaham, one of their favorite guest artists, in the “Butterfly Violin Concerto.” Although it isn’t specifically programmatic from scene to scene, sound to sound, the Concerto is based on a Chinese version of the “Romeo and Juliet” story that Shakespeare used for one of his most beloved tragic plays. It proffers emotional highs and lows voiced in a melodic/harmonic language that observes the traditional pentatonic scales of Chinese folk music that are placed within the broader spectrum of Western major/minor tonality, which itself is based on the Medieval modality of Gregorian Chant.

Although that might sound very much like a recipe for structural disaster, Tan Dun’s towering talent as a composer of unique distinction somehow pulls it off. The music of the “Butterfly Violin Concerto” envelops the listener in its sonic universe and touches him-or-her in its narrative of life and love.

Shaham’s playing, which usually enthralls me, sounded uneven this time around. The fast, brilliant passagework was stunning, but his tone was pale and thin during the slower, more lyric moments. Robertson provided secure support.

The performance of “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women” that the Orchestra broadcast was not one given during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Rather, it was a video broadcast made in 2017, the year of the score’s commissioned world premiere. What a joy to see the full ensemble onstage at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall!

And what a joyful and heartfelt rendition music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians gave this fascinating and compelling work of contemporary classical music. Once again, Tan Dun established a unique musical language, this time based on secret songs sung by women in various stages of their lives: daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers.

Its 13 movements span not just an individual’s full lifespan, but that life’s placement within the broader world in which it was lived. Many of those movements featured video recordings of women singing the very songs of the title, surrounded by instrumental music of great beauty and expressivity, with the harp playing the part of commentator on the emotional and spiritual essence of the words being sung.

Hainen’s playing was powerfully communicative, and Nezet-Seguin elicited evocative playing from the full ensemble.


Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts continued its “virtual” 2020-21 season Feb. 6 with a recital entitled “A Celebration of American Composers.” Directed and accompanied at the Steinway by Luke Housner, the program offered a beautifully and intelligently conceived overview of the incredible contribution made by American composers to the repertoire of art songs.

The vocalists who took part included mezzo-soprano Chelsea Laggan, bass Eric Delagrange, soprano Aubry Ballaro, baritone Titus Muzi, and Philadelphia native, Kara Mulder, soprano. The music they sang included works by West Chester’s Samuel Barber (Curtis Institute of Music alumnus and faculty), Gene Scheer, Clifford Shaw, Paul Bowles, Richard Hundley, Gian Carlo Menotti (Curtis alumnus), Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland.

If you were looking for a common stylistic thread connecting all of these American composers, I suspect that you would settle on a lack of conscious artifice of musical structure and a preference for an unaffected setting of the lyrics of each song and how the vocal line was laid out for the particular range of the voice and how the piano writing accompanied it.

The same traits of unencumbered communication characterized the singing of all the vocalists in all of their selections. Technical security was never lacking, but it remained the unseen foundation of the vocalism of these incredibly talented young musicians, who proved themselves admirable singers and even more impressive interpreters.

I can’t write enough about how masterfully their preparations and performances were overseen by Luke Housner. Singers are notoriously sensitive performers. Their “instrument” is their body, and one never knows its condition on the day of any recital, concert or opera. Add to that the unseasoned youth of all of these vocalists, and one can’t help but wonder how it all came off so beautifully. But it did so because of Housner’s firm yet sensitive support, before and during the recital.

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