Performing works by two Chinese composers and one by Beethoven, the China National Symphony Orchestra, presented by Duke Performances in Page Auditorium treated the audience to a refreshing intercultural palette of tonal colors. Originating in 1956, the orchestra enjoys the reputation as one of the best in China. Li Xincao conducted the concert from memory. He often used his arms and body with strikingly minimal motions, sometimes tracing a long musical line as an arc in the air.

Foregoing the western tradition of warming up on stage, the orchestra members silently entered the stage at the concert time. The audience quickly welcomed them. The evening began with the first movement, “Gazing at the Stars,” from the Earth Requiem by Xia Guan, a renowned Chinese composer who also serves as the Orchestra’s executive director. The serenity of this movement allowed listeners to find a beautiful place within, as slow-moving western harmonies ebbed and flowed. Orchestra members seemed to be particularly aware and connected with each other, physically moving together as they responded to small cues from the podium for chord changes. The composer’s intention, as shared in the program notes, was to mourn the souls involved in the devastating 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, China, and to reflect on the ultimate significance of life.

He Zhanhao and Chen Gang’s Violin Concerto (“Butterfly Lovers”) stood out as the highlight of the evening. Based on a popular Chinese tale about two lovers, similar to Romeo and Juliet, this single-movement work takes the listener through three sections of the story. The first portion depicts the discovery of their love. The second, her utter disappointment at her father adamantly arranging another marriage for her. Heartbroken, her lover commits suicide and she becomes unwilling to leave him, jumping into his tomb. Transformed into a pair of butterflies in the last part, the lovers fly out of the tomb, never to part. The scoring of this eloquent account, much of it in pentatonic melodies, powerfully depicts their love, despair, and transfiguration.

The violin soloist, Li Chuanyuan, 33, a musical prodigy by age six, excited this audience with his lush, warm tone coupled with spectacular technical displays delivered with an unusual ease and freedom. Throughout the concerto, Li executed the ornament, portamento, with a special delicacy and appropriateness to the feelings of the story. Most astonishing, he improvised unwritten portamenti, double stops, and virtuosic passages sweeping the range of the instrument as he so desired. The depth of feeling of his artistry combined with his freedom handling the instrument left no doubt that this young performer is emerging as an unusually fine young artist. He received his training at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and at Juilliard with Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman.

Li skillfully guided the musicians into many mood changes, as in an opera, from the sweetness in the love section to convincingly crafting the ominous sounds portraying the girl’s strong frustration over her father’s objections in the second part, and finally evoking feelings of celestial bliss. The crisp and dynamic orchestral accompaniment served the story and the soloist very well. The musicians, as in the first piece, reflected in their playing their deep involvement with the flow of the story.

Following intermission, the orchestra featured Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The delicate precision of the strings in the introductory portion of the first movement took my breath. Later, clear accents punctuated this movement that skipped along. Beethoven indicates wide dynamic ranges and sudden changes in his score, which propel the wide emotional ranges of the internal narrative of his works. Though the orchestra responded to these, they did so within a narrow emotional range, which, in my view, detracted from the vitality of the movement.

Since Beethoven scores the opening of the second movement in the somber tones of low strings, I prefer a more solemn approach to this movement, that is, a slower tempo in which I can absorb the sounds more fully, especially since the movement is sandwiched between two breathlessly paced movements. In the same movement, I noticed their inattention to phrase shapes as well as to the small moments of silence between phrases, which H. C. Koch, eighteenth-century music theorist, terms the “resting point of the spirit.” The orchestra showed their precision and brilliance in the whirlwinds of the energetic scherzo-like third movement. The rousing final movement, played with vigor, ended the concert.

Thoroughly enjoying the treasures of the evening, the nearly full house responded with standing ovations to this well-trained, cohesive group of Chinese professionals. The China National Symphony Orchestra is an ensemble that truly breathes, moves, and plays as one–with refined sensitivity.

Editor’s note: There’s been some confusion about a pair of “East Meets West” concerts coming up on February 15 (in Southern Pines) and February 17 (in Raleigh). These events feature stars of the National Chinese Traditional Orchestra in a program with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, and the “Butterfly Lovers Concerto” (in an abbreviated form) is part of the line-up. These stars are not members of the China National Symphony Orchestra reviewed here – it is purely coincidental that two Beijing-based ensembles are touring central NC at the same time. That said, enthusiasts of Chinese music are urged to check out these remaining events. For details, click here and here.