China continues to have its classical music moment this fall in Santa Barbara. The opening concert of the season for CAMA’s International Series brought a lavish version of the Shanghai Symphony to the Granada. Yuja Wang, a great favorite with Santa Barbara audiences, was on hand to play the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the second half of the program featured a pair of sopranos, one in traditional Chinese opera style, the other bel canto, and a trio of traditional Chinese instruments. The rich colors of the gowns worn by the singers and the soloists made a brilliant contrast against the black and white of the orchestra and maestro Long Yu.
CAMA president Dolores Hsu gave an enthusiastic and scholarly introduction to the evening from the stage, quoting composer Qigang Chen in regard to the ambition of his concerto Iris Devoilee: “They said it couldn’t be done, but I knew if I could do this, I could do anything.” Hsu, the creator of an important collection of Chinese musical instruments, was the perfect person to introduce Qigang Chen to Santa Barbara.
The Modest Mussorgsky Prelude to Khovanshchina made a refreshing and atmospheric start to the evening and looked forward to some of the many moods of Iris Devoilee.
Yuja Wang has tremendous momentum as a performer right now. Her Rachmaninoff had the entire audience standing and cheering within a few seconds of the final note. This kind of playing-fast, precise, and soulful-will keep the Concerto No. 2 in the repertoire forever.
The powerful connection created by the familiar international music of the first half of the evening was nevertheless not strong enough to break down listening barriers to the innovations of Iris Devoilee, which here, as at Carnegie Hall three weeks ago, got a coolly confused reception. While it wasn’t quite an all-out audience revolt la the Rites of Spring, there was still enough whispering during the Chinese soprano’s turns to be heard in the orchestra seats. With inspired writing in a polished contemporary French style and judicious use of the Chinese elements, Iris Devoilee seemed designed to please a sophisticated audience looking forward to an international concert. For those who remained to the end to give these performers, in particular soprano Meng Meng, their standing ovation, this is exactly what it was.