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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

MSO Unveils Chen's Exotic 'Iris'

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Last weekend was the second preview of the May 11 appearance of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I think it's safe to say that few involved knew what to expect in composer Qigang Chen's 45-minute work, Iris dévoilée (Iris Unveiled), the entire second half of the New York program. Almost all, including audience and musicians, would probably agree that it is an exotically wonderful piece, constantly unfolding into unexpected territory.

Qigang Chen (born in Shanghai in 1951) immigrated to Paris in 1984 and was the last composition student of Olivier Messiaen. Chen has remained in Paris since. Iris dévoilée takes a figure from Greek mythology and abstractly portrays what the composer calls the “eternal feminine” in nine movements. Each movement is mood portrait: Chaste, Sensitive, Jealous, Hysterical, etc. The music magically blends Chinese and French elements. It features a soprano, a Chinese opera singer and three traditional Chinese instruments, along with a large orchestra. (Both singers, Xiaoduo Chen and Meng Meng, appeared with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in this same piece at Carnegie Hall in 2009.)

The composer finds unusual and often delicate sounds in the traditional instruments of the orchestra. Upon first hearing on Friday evening, sitting on the main floor, there were mysteriously evocative spots when I was not sure what instruments were playing. I deliberately sat higher on Saturday to see the musicians. Edo de Waart's aim in the Carnegie Hall program seems to be to display the sophistication possible in the playing of the MSO. The performance accomplished this handsomely.

Andreas Delfs overdid Brahms during his MSO tenure. It was right to give that composer's music a rest in the intervening seasons, but it was time to hear De Waart lead Brahms' Symphony No. 3. I found the Saturday evening performance more persuasive than Friday's take. It was a bit tighter, the balance was better, and the string blend was a little more uniform. De Waart serves up an unsentimental, clarified Brahms, and at its best the thick orchestrations distinctly emerge. I'm not sure, however, if I wouldn't like a little more cream and sugar with my Brahms.
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