DSO and multi-talented Sheng
forge an epic
Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News /
October 17, 2008
Tapping into a fabulous musical resource practically in its own backyard, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra delivered a concert Friday morning that was everything a modern-day orchestra program should be. It was imaginative, surprising, inspiring and beautiful.
Doing impressive double duty as conductor and composer was Bright Sheng, professor at the University of Michigan and native of Shanghai. Just as his arresting memorial tone poem "Nanking! Nanking!" demonstrated why Sheng enjoys worldwide eminence among contemporary composers, his account of music from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" revealed a conductor with technical skill to match his great poetic sensibility.
The title "Nanking! Nanking!" refers to the Chinese city of that name (also called Nanjing) and the massacre that befell its citizens at the hands of Japanese soldiers in 1937. Sheng's formidable, single-movement evocation of that horrific event casts a mighty orchestral sound, often shrieking and grinding, against a solo pipa -- an ancient Chinese cousin of the lute -- in the roles of observer, victim and survivor.
Sheng's eloquent writing for the pipa flew straight to the listener's heart from the hands of soloist Yang Wei. By turns anxious, melancholy and tender, Wei's playing offered an almost verbal foil to the overwhelming ferocity often generated by the DSO. A single sweep of music running nearly half an hour, Sheng's seamless drama seemed to suspend time. Like the mesmerizing narrative of a master storyteller, the pipa's sad tale ended all too soon.
The real raconteur, of course, was Sheng, and he parlayed that gift to no less effect when he turned to Prokofiev's vivid score for "Romeo and Juliet." Here, in Prokofiev's finely gauged tone-painting of masculine dancers, scurrying maidens, lovers' ecstasy and lovers doomed, the DSO absolutely shone.
At tempos matched to the shifting pulse of the story as theater, Sheng elicited from the DSO a performance that was as colorful and expressive as it was precise.
The concert began with a brash turn through Prokofiev's brief but startlingly modern-sounding Overture to his 1945 opera "War and Peace." Sheng's own "Tibetan Swing" offered a sort of syncopated comic relief. In comments from the podium at the start, Sheng promised a surprise encore, and it proved to be a jewel -- his own luxurious arrangement of Brahms Intermezzo for Piano, Op. 118, No. 2. Sheng, dramatist to the end, had retitled it "The Black Swan."