Tuesday, October 4, 2005

With colorful fireworks detonating like thunderclaps above the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center’s massive, monthlong Festival of China kicked off Saturday night, bringing an unprecedented cast of singers, dancers and musicians to the nation’s capital. The fireworks were reprised Sunday evening in the center’s Concert Hall. This time, 23-year-old piano phenom Lang Lang and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra provided the pyrotechnics in a performance of the fabled “Yellow River Piano Concerto.”

The work has a tangled history. Its first incarnation was the “Yellow River Cantata,” an inspirational choral and orchestral work penned in the 1930s by Xian Xinghai, a student of French composers Vincent d’Indy and Paul Dukas (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). French and European influences are readily apparent in this Western-style, occasionally derivative work written to inspire the Chinese during their struggles against the Japanese.

During Mao Zedung’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, however, the Communist Party endeavored to purge all things deemed Western — including, for a time, the cantata. However, enterprising musicians, spearheaded by Yin Chengzong, rescued portions of the work by retooling them into a huge “revolutionary” piano concerto in 1969 and adding dashes of collectivist ditties such as “The East Is Red.” Today, competing versions of the concerto have worked their way back into the repertoire, and the work is once again quite popular in China.

For all its bombast, the “Yellow River” concerto is an oddly entertaining virtuoso piece. It combines the passion and romance of Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto” with difficult bravura passages for the soloist. Propaganda has rarely sounded so good.

Brilliant young pianist Lang Lang, lionized like a rock star in his native China, got dangerously close to snapping strings during the concerto’s turbulent four movements. His prodigious technique was particularly impressive in the militaristic finale, “Defend the Yellow River,” in which the soloist volleys forth with an ever-increasing crescendo of impossible passages.

Also on the program were Xiaogang Ye’s “Cantonese Music Suite, Op. 51,” and the first Washington performance of Chen Qigang’s “Iris Devoilee” (“Iris Unveiled”), a nine-part tone poem musically describing the female spirit. Both were performed expertly by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Long Yu.

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