Led by Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Long Yu, the China Philharmonic Orchestra returned to the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) for the third time last weekend. The excellent concert featured the performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto by a twelve-year-old prodigy, but the highlight of the program was the opening tone poem by Qigang Chen. And to cap the evening, Dvorak’s New World Symphony was also performed.
Mr. Chen wrote “Enchantement Oubliés” (Forgotten Enchantments) in 2004 when it was commissioned by the French National Orchestra. It is a free-flowing work that contains a number of distinct evocative sections as well as passages that feature intimate solos and quartets. Interspersed with segments that are vigorous and robust, the music also contains elements of traditional Chinese music. It ends, as it starts, with a whisper of a recurring melody in the strings. The effect was sublime, and the capacity audience responded with a sustained ovation. It was a wondrous work to hear performed by this marvelous orchestra, and Mr. Yu properly asked each of the soloists who performed to take separate bows at its conclusion.
The Beethoven concerto featured Serena Wang, who has been garnering serious attention as a concert pianist since she performed Beethoven’s First with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (with Zubin Mehta conducting) at the age of ten in June of 2015. She turned twelve in October and performed the same concerto to the Mondavi audience last weekend. (She had previously won the Bach Piano Competition at U.C. Berkeley in 2010 at the age of five!)
Seeing her perform was something of a pleasant surprise. When the concert was first announced last spring, she was not on the program. The featured concerto then was scheduled to be Mendelssohn’s First Violin Concerto. For whatever reason, Miss Wang and the Beethoven were substituted in, and we doubt that anyone in the audience was complaining, especially after the young star gave a flawless performance that included the very difficult and long cadenza in the first movement of the work.
For its part, the full orchestra (totaling over one hundred musicians) provided the ballast for the soloist’s virtuosity. Mr. Yu conducted his charges fluidly, and the work was met with sustained applause at its conclusion. But most of that applause was for the soloist, and, after taking a number of cute and modest bows, Ms. Wang did return for a short encore of what might have been a practice exercise (of considerable complexity). She will be a performer to watch as she grows into her prime.
The other change on the program (from the spring announcement) was the substitution of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony (“From the New World,” so called because the composer wrote it while in residence with the New York Philharmonic in 1893) for Bela Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” It isn’t that we have anything against the Dvorak work, which is certainly one of the most popular (and most frequently played) in the classical repertoire, but the Bartok masterpiece is so rarely performed and is such a great work that we will confess we were looking forward to it. But, for whatever reason the change was made, and the orchestra gave a solid, if not especially memorable, account of the Dvorak gem. If it lacked in anything, the performance failed to fully deliver the true beauty of the second movement, which can be one of the most lovely of all symphony movements when the musicians capture its essence. This performance did not do so, and if pedestrian is too harsh a word for what the orchestra produced, it is not an unfair characterization.
Still, the overall impact of the recurring theme that Dvorak weaves into each of the four movements was felt enough for many in the audience to offer a standing ovation. Mr. Lu then obliged with a short encore (a Chinese composition), preceding it by thanking the audience in excellent English and reminding everyone that this concert was the orchestra’s third at Mondavi. Hopefully, if there is a fourth, it will again feature Ms. Wang, and maybe the Bartok masterpiece as well.