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MUSIC REVIEW : China Orchestra Struggles With the Unfamiliar

November 11, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

From one point of view, it may be impertinent to criticize the Central Philharmonic of China, which appeared Monday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

One can only imagine what it must mean for members of the orchestra and conductor Zuohuang Chen to play Western music again. Many of them experienced first-hand the repressive horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution when, for more than a decade, Western music was forbidden and classically trained musicians often were punished by being sent to the rice fields to work as laborers.

So programs such as the one in Segerstrom Hall have not yet become routine for the orchestra, which was revived in 1977. And Zuohuang conducted with a palpable sense of joy and elan in his work, using big, circular, scooping gestures or energized, sharp strokes.

But a decade is not enough to create a strong ensemble (the brass section was particularly weak on Monday) or to grasp the nuances of differing musical styles.

The sense of idiomatic misapprehension perhaps was strongest in Zuohuang's conducting of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, which the orchestra played last week in Los Angeles and which was given in Costa Mesa in place of the originally announced Dvorak Symphony No. 8. (The error resulted from "a mix-up in communications from New York," said Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which sponsored the event.)

Zuohuang did not seem to recognize the composer's quirky use of harmonic language to evoke caricature or grotesquerie. He treated dissonances more as passing tones than as distinct melodic accents and so took many passages straight when they implied irony or savagery.

Further, he seemed to fall back upon earlier historical models as guides to the construction of the piece. The result was a kind of anatomy lesson in possible musical sources: One heard quotes or echoes of Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and, perhaps most surprising, Prokofiev. While all this was interesting, one missed the main focus upon drama, struggle and eventual triumph. The last movement was the most idiomatic but was undercut by weak brass.

In Elgar's Concerto for Cello, conductor and soloist Jian Wang shared a more viable approach--one that was lyric, restrained but punctuated with occasionally strong, vibrant attacks. Perhaps the most striking moments came in the dazed, almost traumatized sensibility that was roused virtually to anger at the end.

Zuohuang opened the program with the American and the Chinese national anthems, and followed them with Wu Zu-Qiang's "Reflections of the Moon on the Second Best Fountain," an appealing 10-minute work for strings reminiscent of Vaughan Williams but based upon a Chinese melody with typical glissandi, rather than on English folk song.

He gave two encores: an adaptation of the Chinese folk tune "What a Beautiful Evening," and Leroy Anderson's "Chicken Reel." The audience was warm and enthusiastic, and the Chinese musicians responded by clapping and waving back.

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