At Grant Park, a rare musical mixture of East and West

June 23, 2013

By Alan G. Artner, The Chicago Tribune

Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a bright spotlight fell on conductor Carlos Kalmar's embrace of the unusual.

Even among the rarities he has introduced at the Grant Park Music Festival, the main work of the weekend was a stand-out curiosity.

That the piece was by a contemporary Chinese composer went some distance in trying to catch up with our awareness of present-day Chinese visual art. By comparison, the opportunity of hearing an extended composition such as Qigang Chen's "Iris devoilee" ("Iris Unveiled") is still rare.

Born in Shanghai and raised in Beijing, the 61-year-old Chen – now a French citizen - was the last student of Olivier Messiaen, whose teaching methods were not to turn out clones but to encourage individuality. For Chen, as for Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu before him, that meant a blend of Eastern tradition and Western modernity.

"Iris" put three traditional Chinese string instruments – erhu, pipa and zheng – in front the Western orchestra. It also added two female vocal soloists, one singing Beijing Opera speech-song, the other mainly Western vocalises. Soprano Meng Meng was fully costumed but remained largely impassive whereas soprano Wu Yanyu "acted" through faraway looks and sweeping gestures.

The work was divided into nine "portraits," each describing a state such as tender or hysterical of a goddess. By extension, such states limned what once was called in the West the Eternal Feminine.

Several portraits proceeded from short duets, between the sopranos or one of the singers plus one of the players of the Chinese instruments. These were supported by generally soft clouds of tone from the orchestra's strings, impressionistic in the manner of Claude Debussy or honey-sweet like Messiaen. Brief violent eruptions, illustrating jealousy and hysteria, made use of orchestral techniques considered avant-garde in the 1960s.

The exoticism of the traditional Chinese instruments and vocal production made the work seem fresher than it is. The performance sounded authoritative, certainly on the part of the singers and instrumental soloists Wei-Yang Andy Lin, Yang Wei and Yang Yi.

Perfect complements on the second half were Gabriel Faure's Suite of Incidental Music to "Pelleas and Melisande" and Maurice Ravel's "La Valse," tenderly and suavely played.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.