Within the San Diego arts community, participation in Pacific Rim culture is at most only intermittently experienced. But at Saturday’s (Feb. 8) San Diego Symphony concert, a performance of Zhao Jiping’s Second Pipa Concerto featuring the internationally known pipa virtuosa Wu Man sent a clear signal that San Diego claims its Asian connection.
Called the Chinese lute, the ancient pipa has been around for 2,000 years, unlike that upstart Italian instrument from the mid-16th century, the violin. Although the pipa plays a venerable role in Chinese traditional music, it has only recently been integrated into western musical idioms. Commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for Wu Man and premiered last year, Jiping’s Second Concerto for Pipa is a muscular, large-scaled, single-movement rhapsody that gives the soloist ample opportunity to exploit the instrument’s ability both to trace delicate themes and strum vibrant chords.
Because the pipa was never intended to play with a powerful, large ensemble such as a modern orchestra, Wu Man’s instrument was understandably provided modest amplification projected through a speaker in front of the conductor’s podium. The Chinese lute makes a brighter, more penetrating sound than a western Renaissance lute; its piquant timbre falls somewhere between that of a banjo and a hammered dulcimer.
When Jiping kept to lighter textures, such as his deft antiphonal dialogues between the cello section and the pipa in the opening section of the Concerto, he sounded fresh and original. But in his more effulgent turns with full orchestra, he seemed to be conjuring the ghosts of Franz Waxman and Max Steiner. Jiping has made his mark composing film music, and while his scores for “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine” were highly praised, what works well for a film can seem rather banal in the concert hall.
Wu Man favored the audience with an encore, a lavishly ornamented version of the traditional Chinese song “White Snow in Spring Sunlight.”
In a more ideal world, this concert would have surrounded the new Pipa Concerto with works by other contemporary Chinese composers such as Bright Shen and Tan Dun. Since this was a subscription concert for the San Diego Symphony, Music Director Jahja Ling chose Felix Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony, a grand choral-orchestral work known by the title “Lobgesang” or “Song of Praise.” With the assistance of the San Diego Master Chorale and three vocal soloists, Ling and the orchestra gave a rousing, inspired account of Mendelssohn’s overly earnest tribute written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
The Master Chorale projected a hearty, well-supported wall of sound in the work’s several laudatory choruses set to Psalm texts, and the balance between the women’s and men’s sections of the Chorale has improved significantly over past seasons. Dramatic soprano Janice Chandler-Eterne soared beautifully over both Chorale and orchestra, and lyric tenor Colin Balzer added unusually sensitive interpretation of the text to his winsome color and elegant phrasing. In the secondary soprano role, Heidi Grant Murphy sang sweetly but was too easily overpowered by Chandler-Eterne.
This Second Symphony is the least performed of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies, and it is not difficult to understand why. Its first three movements are scored for orchestra alone in the composer’s typical effervescent instrumental style. Then he shifts gears into his idea of a multi-movement church cantata that J. S. Bach might have composed had he been born after Beethoven. Unlike Beethoven’s “Choral” Ninth Symphony, where the final choral movement is the conclusion of what the opening three instrumental movements set up with compelling logic, Mendelssohn’s choral conclusion to his Second Symphony comes off as an odd detour into an unrelated work.