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Concert Review of Sheng with Des Moines Symphony Orchestra

Details drive symphony's powerful concert

by MICHAEL MORAIN / Des Moines Register

Guest conductor Bright Sheng ran a tight ship Saturday during the Des Moines Symphony's concert at the Civic Center. Just seconds into Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, Sheng signaled the musicians to stop, cocked his head and motioned for them to try again.

In the end, his persnickety attention to detail - and the orchestra's concentration - resulted in a sound that was more precise than audiences have heard from the group in a while. Their performance was bold, challenging and ultimately rewarding.

Both halves of the program, like the day's weather, started sunny and clouded over. The orchestra opened with a rousing rendition of Shostakovich's joyful, raise-the-curtain Festival Overture (a song that, if set as a wake-up alarm, would almost certainly ward off a bad day).

That gave way to the jarring sounds of Sheng's own "Nanking! Nanking!" which the Chinese-born conductor based on the Japanese army's 1937 brutal invasion of what was then the Chinese capital.

As one might expect, Sheng filled the piece with ambushes from the percussion section's battalion of gongs and machine-gun ratchets, which seem to pounce from behind every corner of the score. The timing was difficult, but the orchestra delivered it with clockwork finesse.

Guest soloist Yang Wei rose above the fracas with solos on the pipa, a lute-like instrument from his native China. He returned for a dazzling encore, with fingers blurring across the strings, and finished with a version of "Home on the Range" worthy of a cowboy campfire.

Echoes of "Nanking!" came after intermission, with Sheng's "Tibetan Swing."

It offered some of the same rhythmic surprises but with a tone that was less threatening than raucous - picture a party that careers into a brawl and you'll get the idea.

The program finished with Shostakovich's Ninth, which the Russian composer wrote at the end of World War II. He had promised Josef Stalin a symphony to celebrate the Red Army's victory over the Nazis, something massive and triumphant, but parts of the piece were so light and sprightly that many of its early audiences understood it, correctly, as a sarcastic joke. The government censored it three years later (about the same time, coincidentally, that the U.S. government was stoking the Red Scare). Here the orchestra coaxed delicate sounds from the opening Mozartian themes (which Stalin apparently hated) and cranked up for the rowdier sneers.

But it's hard for musicians to sustain a half-hour of irony out of context, and even harder for modern American ears to hear it. Most of the music I heard was legitimately beautiful, thanks to Sheng's clear direction and the ensemble's nimble navigation through the score. There were pitch-perfect moments in each of the Ninth Symphony's five movements, but none shone more brightly than the solo by principal bassoonist David Rachor. His heartfelt tune was a moment of grace - even in the midst of turmoil.

         
 

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