Linda Wang and Denver Philharmonic Orchestra: Valentine’s Day concert
By Robin McNeil
Performing to a packed house, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Lawrence Golan, performed its fourth concert of the season, which was entitled Young Love, in celebration of Valentine’s Day. The works performed were the Sleeping Beauty Suite from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet; The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, jointly composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, with guest artist, Linda Wang; and another ballet suite: Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, Nr. 2.
Most scholars and musicologists regard Sleeping Beauty as the most perfectly crafted of Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) three ballet scores. Yet, when he was approached to write an overture, he could not decide what pieces to include, and, in addition, he could not decide whether to write two suites or one suite. He even consulted his friend, pianist and arranger, Alexander Siloti, to set the score of his Sleeping Beauty for piano duet, which he decided not to do. However, Siloti did give the score to his cousin, Sergei Rachmaninoff (who was seventeen years old at the time) thinking that Rachmaninoff was the better pianist. Eventually, Siloti himself did arrange the entire score for piano solo. Nonetheless, no orchestral version of a suite was put together until several years after Tchaikovsky’s death. In 1899, his publisher and friend, Pyotr Jurgenson assembled the orchestral suite. It included: Introduction: Of the Lilac Fairy; Pas d’action. Adagio; Pas de caractère: Puss in Boots; Panorama; and Valse.
This orchestral suite has proven to be as popular as the ballet itself simply because Tchaikovsky wrote some of the most beautiful melodic lines in the history of ballet. Immediately beginning the performance, it was clear that the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra keeps getting better and better. The violins were excellently in tune, and the entire orchestra genuinely seemed to be concentrating on the job at hand at a much higher level than I have ever heard. The woodwinds and the harp were truly exceptional after the opening huge chords from the entire orchestra. However, I would have wished for a better dynamic balance in the fortissimo sections of the opening, particularly in the timpani, which was just too loud. Some of the excellent solo work, particularly from the woodwind section, was covered up. Nonetheless, I don’t think that I have ever heard the DPO perform so well. There was new excitement and new emotion in their playing, and everyone in the orchestra was infected by it.
Next on the program, the DPO and violinist Linda Wang performed The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, jointly composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, both of whom are on the faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Linda Wang, as all of you readers must certainly know by now, is a remarkable violinist who is on the faculty of the Lamont School of Music at DU. She has performed the world over, and I will quote very briefly from her bio statement on the web:
“A native of New York City, Linda Wang has studied at the Juilliard School, the Colburn School and the University of Southern California. Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, she pursued advanced studies at the famed Salzburg Mozarteum. Her principal teachers have been Dorothy DeLay, Hyo Kang, Alice Schoenfeld and Ruggiero Ricci.
”A dedicated teacher herself, Linda Wang is Associate Professor of Violin at the Lamont School of Music, and is currently on the Fulbright Specialists Roster for teaching at overseas institutions. As a master class clinician she has taught at universities, high schools and music schools throughout the US, Iceland and in Asia. Linda Wang currently performs on a 1767 J.B. Guadagnini, and is a featured artist on CD’s for Beauport Classical, MGS Productions and Albany Records. Additional information can be found on her website, www.lindawang.com”
As I stated above, this particular concerto was jointly composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao in 1959 while they were still students at Shanghai Conservatory. As is unusual for a violin concerto, but perhaps not for Chinese music, this work has programmatic consideration, which is parallel to the story of Romeo and Juliet. The main difference lies in the fact that after both hero and heroine have died, they are transformed into butterflies that will live forever. The piece was revised many times since its composition (quite possibly because it had been suppressed during the Cultural Revolution), but it has become one of the most popular pieces, and certainly the most popular violin concerto, to emerge from China. It makes use of both Western and Chinese harmonic elements, for example, the pentatonic series. I am a little reluctant to call the pentatonic series a “scale,” though that is often how this series of five notes is referred. The reluctance comes from the fact that in Western terminology a scale has to have a leading tone, and the pentatonic scale does not. One can change the entire sound of a piece of music that uses the pentatonic scale simply by beginning on a different note of the five. Because there is no leading tone, this can often fool the ear into thinking one has switched from major to minor. In some ways the pentatonic scale is very similar to the Medieval modes that were used before major and minor were codified by Gioseffo Zarlino in 1558.
All of this aside, this work has become famous the world over, and has been arranged for different instruments. The French pianist Richard Clayderman made a recording of this piece; however, his arrangement has a decidedly “new age” aura about it, which certainly does not seem to be the original intent.
Ms. Wang’s performance of this piece was absolutely masterful, and through her artistic ability to change tone and bowing techniques in a most subtle way, she was able to bring out the composers’ intention that a repetition of the melody can be used to demonstrate at least two different moods, and thus describe different points of the young lover’s lives. The DPO was very supportive of Ms. Wang, and the imbalance that seemed to take place on the first part of the program, was completely absent in The Butterfly Lovers Concerto. There was some wonderful oboe and flute work done by Kim Brody, Loren Meaux, and Aaron Wille. The second section of this work is fast and cheery, and the violin writing demands very fast shifts in the high positions of the violin as well as spiccato. Wang never seemed to be working hard, and she accomplished all of the technical difficulties with remarkable aplomb and finesse.
Following the intermission, the DPO performed the Prokofiev Suite Nr. 2 from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. As I said in paragraph two of this article, it was Tchaikovsky who was so skilled at writing ballets, that for many years he was considered the greatest composer of that genre because of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty. However, it was Sergei Prokofiev who invaded Tchaikovsky’s realm with his four act ballet, Romeo and Juliet. It became so popular that Prokofiev wrote three suites using the music from his ballet. Some consider Romeo and Juliet to be Prokofiev’s finest work, if not the finest ballet ever written. Prokofiev’s music can be extraordinarily difficult for an orchestra because of all of its deceptive harmonic resolutions, disjunct melodic lines (melodic lines with large leaps), and surprising changes in melodic direction.
The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra gave a fine performance of this ballet suite Friday evening. The orchestral balance was perfect, and the remarkable woodwind section which has always been a stellar part of this orchestra was a joy to hear. Brooke Hengst has rejoined the orchestra as acting principal clarinetist, and she, along with Aaron Wille and Catherine Ricca Lanzano, flute; Kim Brody, oboe, with Loren Meaux oboe and English horn; Emily Helms, bass clarinet and saxophone; Sean Edwards, tenor sax; and Kent Greenwald, principal bassoon, make this the most outstanding woodwind section in any of the community orchestras in the area. The violins were excellent throughout, as well. In the fifth section of this suite, Romeo and Juliet’s Parting, there was a marvelous viola solo, performed by William Hinkie. There was also some excellent piccolo work done by Whitney Kelly in the fifth section of this suite.
There was marvelous rapport between Maestro Lawrence Golan and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. They were clearly working toward the same goal, and took the many Prokofiev difficulties in stride and conquered them with ease. The full house at this concert is indicative of the many improvements that this orchestra has made over the years. It was most refreshing to see so many young people in attendance. It was terrific to see such a hard-working orchestra be so well received as they were Friday evening.