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[whitespace] Eastern Ease

San Jose Chamber Orchestra's premiere of 'From the East' proved brilliant thanks to soloist Cui Jun Zhi

By Scott MacClelland

THE FAMILIAR BRILLIANCE of Barbara Day Turner's San Jose Chamber Orchestra gained an added warmth of sonority when guest conductor Oliver Weder took the podium last Sunday. Turner had worked with the tall, handsome German on his home turf, and he in turn accepted her invitation to make his American debut at Le Petit Trianon, where even the generous acoustics seemed happy to meet him.

It came as no surprise that Weder's alert and gracious conducting style would reflect an affinity for Janacek's early Idyll. But his command of the program's world premiere, Phil Young's From the East for konghou (Chinese harp) and strings, was startling in its ease and authority.

Even so, keeping an eye on his leadership became a challenge when soloist Cui Jun Zhi began to play. No one needed the program notes to know that a world-class Chinese artist had been recruited for the occasion. With a range of techniques that would outrun an abacus, this diminutive performer made her instruments (two of them, with different tunings) declaim, sing, whisper and dance.

At first glance, the konghou appears to be a smaller version of the European concert harp. A closer look finds two parallel sets of strings, one on either side of the frame, each to be played by only one hand. Even more careful scrutiny shows that the two sets of strings are actually one, looped through channels below the sound box and tied off at the tuning pegs that run along the top of the frame.

This technology explains how the player was able to pluck a note with one hand and bend it by pushing in and out on the other-side extension of the same string. None of this would matter if bending notes were not essential to the expressive character of Chinese music. But it is, along with pitting mellow tones against sharply cutting ones, strumming notes in the manner of a mandolin and smacking the strings and sound box percussively.

Cui Jun Zhi applied all of these techniques and more with exquisite authority and grace to Young's delicious 15-minute concerto, a work that successfully applies Western classical techniques to Chinese folk music, honoring both traditions with insight and confidence.

Young, music director of the Chinese Performing Artists of America and a San Jose resident, hewed to a pentatonic scale, adding remarkable variety and color to the string orchestra through concertante solos, concerto grosso alternations, high harmonics, dialogs between solo strings and the harp, and fugato. A lengthy cadenza gave the soloist a chance to reiterate her astonishing "method."

The seven-movement Idyll, a serenade in homage to the influence of Dvorák, lacks the distinctly spiky aggressions of Janacek's mature style but nonetheless reveals plenty of original fingerprints. The reading took as much success from the material as it gave in glorious sound, as ravishing as this listener has heard from these musicians.

That response was then applied to Rudolf Barshai's string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich's String Quartet no. 8, that haunted condemnation of war and fascism composed after a visit to destroyed Dresden. Uncommonly clear, even for the contrapuntal mastery Shostakovich applied to all his music, the composer's monogram (D, E-flat, C, B-natural) proves its power of organization, sounding again and again in countless permutations throughout the five short movements.

In the reading, its climactic buildup to the whirling Jewish totentanz in the second movement was at once thrilling and horrifying. Less explosive but equally vivid were the Siberian forced laborers' song and the last, hope-against-hope aria of Katerina Ismailova, the doomed heroine of Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The power of the work made the encore, a brief trifle by Reger, seem unfortunately superfluous, if not downright trivial.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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