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China National Symphony Orchestra on Tour

Washington's National Symphony Orchestra is on a tour of European cities, with a postscriptum concert at the Royal Opera House in Oman. Some preview articles were published in the European press, in Germany and in Spain. Music director Christoph Eschenbach told El Cultural: "Doráti, Rostropovich, Slatkin, Fischer, and all the great personalities who have stood on the NSO's podium since its foundation in 1931 are like ghosts who still walk through the Kennedy Center, and still today that defines their character and their sound." It is not, he concluded, typically American. We will hopefully have some translations of the reviews from Europe in the next couple weeks.

A happy coincidence brings China's National Symphony Orchestra to the Washington area this weekend in exchange -- as well as a visit from the Afghan Youth Orchestra this coming week. The Chinese ensemble, reportedly the best currently playing in China, returned to the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night, the site of its triumphant local debut in 2006. It was somewhat surprising to find the hall half-empty, therefore, and worse to hear a rather embarrassing program, centered on a notorious piece of Chinese propaganda, and in a middling performance. At the risk of offending those in China who do not support freedom of the press, the Yellow River Piano Concerto, composed by a committee of composers under the direction of Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution in China, should provoke the same kind of embarrassment that a Hollywood arrangement of the Battle Hymn of the Republic provokes in me: outside of a Fourth of July celebration, perhaps, such hackneyed patriotic balderdash should be avoided. The Yellow River Piano Concerto should be every professor's first example when explaining the artistic shortcomings of state control of the arts: it is cheesy, sentimental tripe, complete with faux-Rachmaninoff flourishes in the solo part, rendered here with mannered showmanship by sometimes erratic pianist Peng-Peng Gong. Conductor Li Xincao had to keep a close eye on Gong's hands to keep the orchestra aligned with him.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, China National Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore (Washington Post, February 4)

Emily Cary, China National Symphony Orchestra times two (Washington Examiner, January 30)

John Fleming, China National Symphony at Mahaffey (Tampa Bay Times, January 24)

Michael Barris and Yuhan Liu, First notes on orchestra's record tour (China Daily, January 21)
The opening work was little better in terms of musical style, a movement from Requiem for the Earth, composed by Guan Xia in commemoration of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Repetitive, saccharine, and unabashedly cinematic, the score sounded of a piece with something like the soundtrack of Out of Africa. A less than inspired performance of Beethoven's seventh symphony concluded the concert, which the conductor's overheated gestures -- one could even hear him counting or grunting during some of the rests, perhaps to cue the musicians, and even audibly shushing them at one point -- did little to shape or nuance. It was refreshing to hear the last movement largely played as indicated in the score, without the rhythmic distortions often added by other conductors to elucidate the movement's form. Still, with the second movement played a little too fast and matter-of-factly for an affecting funeral march, it was mostly a performance to forget, in spite of a fast-moving and light third movement. The orchestra did not sound at its best either, perhaps because of the strain of a long tour: there were bobbles in the horns and the oboe, intonation issues in the flutes, and some less than unified violin sound.

The U.S. tour of the China National Symphony Orchestra continues tonight, with a concert at the GMU Center for the Arts in Fairfax (February 2, 8 pm).

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