Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

La Chinoiserie

May 09, 2009

Xian Zhang, Yefim Bronfman, and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

This weekend’s performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed a bit unusual. On one level, it had the markings of a big event with appearances by a living composer and the local debut of a rising-star conductor. But on the other hand, it was an odd program even by the usual standards of our contemporary music loving local audience. First off, it was conducted by recent NY Philharmonic Associate Conductor Xian Chang. Sadly, an appearance by a woman conductor is still unusual enough even here that it warranted comment by staff and patrons in the lobby after the show. Chang has developed a good reputation in New York advocating for 20th century music, so it would seem appropriate for her to appear with the world’s leading orchestral ensemble in this repertory. As if to emphasize that point, it was an all 20th century program, the centerpiece of which was Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto played here by Yefim Bronfman. It’s an odd piece filled with orchestral passages out of any big-screen romance that is suddenly overrun with wild flights of much less romantic stuff from the keyboard. Bronfman was his commanding self, but seemed a little perturbed to me when the crowd erupted into applause at the end of the first movement. He stood looking surprised with this “I guess I’m done” look and then shrugged towards Zhang and the concertmaster. He took what appeared to be some quick mock bows and then immediately sat down as he and the orchestra launched into the second movement without waiting for the crowd to stop. He must not have been too irritated, though, given that he did give a brief encore and did not deliver a political manifesto from the stage, a well known local tradition in the City of Angels.

Prokofiev was the odd man out on an evening, though, that was otherwise marked by works of either direct or more obtuse references to Chinese culture. Zhang herself is from China and the evening began with the only work from a Chinese composer, Chen Yi’s Momentum. At ten minutes, this snippet directly infuses Chinese folk melody with modern Western musical instrumentation. With large waves of thundering percussion roles and surging strings, it seemed to be announcing something. What followed though seemed a little less directly tied to a Chinese theme. After the Prokofiev was John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, a suite cut from the same cloth as, but not taken directly from, his opera Nixon in China. It seemed world’s away from everything else on the menu, but Adams was present in the crowd and did make an appearance on stage. (He’s likely in town for a series of programs next week he’s conducting including his own A Flowering Tree and Son of Chamber Symphony). Then, sticking with the ersatz-Chinese theme, the orchestra lunged into Bartok’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. It was a showy and direct performance, but certainly a worthwhile one. I wasn’t always sure this hung together the way one might like it to, but it does seem admirable on the other hand to perform so many pieces all from the relatively recent musical past that present such radically different approaches in incorporating Chinese cultural influences into Western musical tradition. Here's the proof that Chinese culture has influcenced Western music in a myriad of ways over time in a far from unitary or predictable way. The program repeats Sunday afternoon.

Oh, and for those of you in need of a little etiquette clarification, as the woman seated next to me requested, having an infant at home does not provide justification for sending text messages repeatedly throughout the course of the performance. While your commonplace ability to procreate may be impressive to you, we’re still trying to have a civilization here. (And while we’re at it, you can drop the very American stance of taking offense at being politely asked by another person in the world to stop doing something that is annoying to everyone around you.)


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