The beautiful red lanterns gracing the stage at Columbus North High School on Saturday made it easy to get into the spirit of the Chinese New Year for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s most recent performance.
The musical connection to this theme was a formidable concerto by Chinese composer Xian Xinghai featuring pianist Tianshu Wang of Capital University. This work, the “Yellow River Concerto,” was supplemented with a light-hearted Italian overture and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Eastern-inspired Scheherazade (Op. 35).
Maestro Bowden wasted no time on stage at the beginning of the concert, launching into Giacchino Rossini’s exuberant overture to “La Scala di Seta” (The Silken Ladder) almost as soon as he stepped onto the conductor’s podium. From the lively flourishes in the strings to the gentle solos in the winds, to the chattering from all instruments, one could easily imagine the comedic characters of Rossini’s opera that would have taken the stage if given the opportunity (no doubt among much chaos and confusion). The woodwind players deserve a special mention for their fast, articulate passagework throughout the overture.
The next piece on the program was the most anticipated of the night — the “Yellow River Concerto” by Xian Xinghai. Originally composed for choir and orchestra but later adapted by other composers for piano, this work showcased the talent of pianist Tianshu Wang, who never failed to leave the audience in awe of her abilities.
The four movements of the concerto painted China’s extraordinary river, using it as an image of the Chinese people’s defiance of invaders and national strength. Wang impressed from the beginning with chains of huge chords that traversed the entire range of the piano, indicative of the difficulty of the work and her control and accuracy.
In contrast to her display in these imposing passages, Wang was equally at home in later movements in bringing out a beautiful folk melody within many layers of activity, and in imitating traditional Chinese string instruments with rapid repeated note patterns. Unfortunately, at times during the concerto it was difficult to hear the piano when it was joined by the full orchestra, although Wang clearly did her utmost to draw maximum sound out of the instrument on stage. It was thus a special treat to be able to hear her alone for a brief encore, “Homage to China” by Alexander Tcherepnin, a grand-pupil of the last composer on the program.
After intermission, the audience settled back into its seats for one of the most evocative and pictorial works in the orchestral repertoire, Scheherazade (based on the story of The Arabian Nights). Despite a few uneven attacks in the winds and an occasional chord with unstable tuning, the Philharmonic offered a compelling performance, especially in the rich and flexible melodies of concertmaster Benjamin Hoffman as he portrayed the legendary story-telling queen.