Last night in a remark to the audience before David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony performed his "H'un: In Memoriam 1966-76," composer Bright Sheng told the Meyerhoff Hall audience that he had been unable to use melody in a piece that bears witnes to the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
But "H'un" (which translates as "scars" or "lacerations") is perhaps the most beautiful and moving piece of new music Zinman and the orchestra have played since Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 1 a few seasons back. Like Rouse's symphony, "H'un" is a tense, extended -- more than 20 minutes long -- and driven orchestral study in which the strings hammer out jagged rhythms and the winds shriek. There is indeed no melody, but "H'un" derives narrative shape from the ways in which its motives and sonorities are developed. It grinds away like a juggernaut before dying out in a ghostly, quiet coda. There is nothing heart-on-sleeve or cheap about this music's tragic dignity. There are obvious debts to Shostakovich and Penderecki, but Sheng is a composer with an individual and intriguing voice. The orchestra played the piece wonderfully.
When Zinman decided to program Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 after so slow and intense a work as "H'un," he probably never expected the audience to hear it played in so funereal a manner as that of the pianist Peter Serkin. Last night a friend suggested that the pianist "loved the piece to death." Love is always a question; death a certitude. Serkin turned the andante into a larghetto and was halfway through the final movement before he seemed to wake up and discover that he was in a fast movement. The playing of the orchestra -- particularly its winds -- was excellent. But in a performance like Serkin's, Mozart did indeed sound as if he had been dead for 200 years.
The concert concluded with Schubert's Symphony No. 9.