Chen Yi's 'Momentum' shouts in anger

May 05, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Embarrassing as it is to admit, I arrived for a concert at Peabody Institute's Friedberg Hall one week ago two minutes after conductor Hajime Teri Murai and the Peabody Symphony had begun to perform Chen Yi's "Momentum": That I had to listen to its remaining 13 minutes behind closed doors is the reason readers did not see a review.

Even behind closed doors, however, the Chinese-born composer's new work made a strong impression.

"Momentum" is very loud. In a program note, Chen Yi referred to her inspiration as "the power of the ancient [Chinese] totems," using the metaphor of a volcanic eruption -- an equally apt description of how the piece sounds and affects the listener.

Chen Yi, who was born in 1953, spent 10 years of her adolescence and early adulthood in the gulags constructed during China's Cultural Revolution. Such an experience can understandably leave behind a reservoir of rage that can affect a human being in much the way the Earth's tectonic plates are moved by subterranean pressures.

Listening to "Momentum" inside the confines of Friedberg might not have been pleasant, but it would have been intense. Even at the remove at which I heard the piece, it was an experience I shall not forget.

"Momentum" surely commanded more attention than another contemporary piece on the program, Michael Torke's Saxophone Concerto (1993). In the last 12 years, Torke, 37, has become one of the world's most-performed composers -- probably because he has re-invented the baroque concerto grosso.

Torke's ingenious manipulation of repetitive, slowly changing, melodic cells can charm the listener in the manner of such pieces as Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Murai and his young orchestra -- as well as saxophonist Gary Louie -- sounded terrific in this music, which is much harder to play than it sounds. But one week later, I can't remember what it sounded like.

Twenty-four hours earlier I heard an even more remarkable demonstration of youthful musicality in Washington. Kunihiko Saito, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, and his aide, Tomoaki Ishigaki, rank among the most musically discerning listeners I know.

So when they suggested that I might be interested in hearing a private recital by a pianist who was about to turn 14, I listened.

Don't forget the name: Shota Nakano. His is the biggest talent I've heard since Evgeny Kissin was the same age.

Even for a prodigy, the technique was extraordinary. Chopin's C Major Etude (opus 10, No. 1), for example, began at a blistering tempo that never faltered: Nakano may only be a little more than 60 inches high, but his huge hands made Chopin's unrelenting arpeggios sound as easy as a five-finger exercise.

His musical understanding was even more extraordinary. Schumann's "Abegg Variations" was sensitive, delicately colored and full of fantasy. Chopin's G Minor Ballade was as emotionally fearless and thunderously powerful as it was accurate.

Nakano captured the joke at the end of the same composer's whimsical "Butterfly" etude -- something even more experienced artists miss.

And he made the tintinnabulation of Liszt's "La Campanella" sound like a miniature tone poem instead of an emergency vehicle racing to a fire.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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