Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No nonsense glissandos

Xian Zhang thrills WDCH crowd

Xian Zhang~~~~~~~~~~~~~~PHOTO: Rosalie O'Connor for LA Philharmonic

By Donna Perlmutter

There was a single, deep question stirring when Xian Zhang, an already stellar debutante, took the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend (May 9) at Disney Hall:

Would the 35-year-old maestra, born and educated in China, rise above gender politics and prove herself – as she’s done before the New York Philharmonic and other formidable ensembles – the equivalent of that male authority so embedded in our collective unconscious as the be-all and end-all of baton-wielding?

Without any doubt.

Of course, her long list of glass-ceiling shatterings attests to that: she’s just been named as first woman music director of Milan’s Verdi Orchestra (in conservative Italy, only men have held these posts to date); first woman to lead the Staatskapelle Dresden (while the Berlin Philharmonic struggled for years just to appoint the stray female instrumentalist). All in a day’s work, up to and including her months-old infant in the wings.

Angelenos with memories know that the Philharmonic has “come a long way baby.” It was just a few decades ago when the briefly resurrected Antonia Brico stood before the band at Hollywood Bowl, skirts swaying in the breeze, her nose buried in the “Bolero” score, beating time -- while then-concertmaster Sidney Harth signaled his rehearsal-mates to mockingly flip pages from their stands to the floor.

But Zhang, who strode onstage smartly, (dare I say authoritatively?) in her Mao-like pants-suit uniform and thick high-heels (which she changed to flats after intermission), took absolute and no-nonsense command from the first upbeat.

Her program, which featured Yefim Bronfman playing Prokofiev’s knuckle-busting Third Piano Concerto, focused on two big, bold works as Chinese-referenced bookends -- so bold, in fact, that even if the audience had not wondered whether a small woman could manage a mammoth orchestral challenge, it would now be forced to. And end up marveling at her power, a power to test anyone, regardless of gender. Maestra-watchers can look for the top-most ceiling to crash from this moment on.

Zhang’s calling card came with fellow Beijing Conservatory graduate Ms. Chen Yi’s “Momentum,” a 10-minute work grand in its drama, taut in its austerity. suave in its thunder – all captured by the fabulously concentrated players who were clearly in thrall to their guest conductor in her first time at Disney. Her stick technique is unerring, compelled by some inner attunement and pulse, as though the score had been suffused throughout her body, its shape and design an organic entity.

Here was a wallop-packing experience, a thing of sonic dazzlement studded with dissonant brass assaults and glassy skittering strings that edged into lyric glissandos of Chinese origin. The piece, which had its premiere in 1998, goes on an eerie and contemplative quest from choir to choir with several searing solos before developing into large-scale blocks of stunningly mountainous sound and sweeping all before it.

This was not the only time the hall rocked, though, Saturday night. Not with Bronfman exploding Prokofiev on the keyboard. This big bear of a man consolidated his reputation once again, owning the piece as he grabbed up ten hands-full of notes that came rocketing out like a stream of glittering fireworks. He and the fearless Zhang seemed to be on a course of their own momentum together, taking the fast tempos ever-faster until, at the end of the first movement he literally flew off the bench. Spontaneously, he jumped up to acknowledge the heightened applause. Thereafter, he took the theme and variations quietly, though without the sighing, romantic lyicism others often capitalize on.

The only light and jaunty moments came with John Adams’ foxtrot from “Nixon in China,” “The Chairman Dances,” which Zhang treated as a gently rocking motor ride, focusing on its rhythmic repetitions until they became a lift-off from grounded reality. She ended with Bartók’s suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” realizing the work's hellish ferocity, its depiction of evil as a graphic thing, its sense of looming threat, its sensual longing -- all of this by calling out the various soloists in glorious array and without allowing the lapses that programmatic music can sometimes invite.

With Chen Yi and Xian Zhang a thousand female flowers have indeed bloomed, as Chairman Mao turns, no doubt, in his grave.

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