Taiwanese Hands Join In Evocative ‘Formosan Triptych’

Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Yu-An Chang, born in Taiwan, introduced a new work by fellow Taiwanese composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee, along with works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky. (Concert photos by Robert Torres)
By Keith Powers

BOSTON – The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s embrace of international musics usually sticks to European traditions. But a collaboration between Taiwanese conductor Yu-An Chang and composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee brought the vital heritage of their shared home to Symphony Hall on Jan. 16.

Chang, one of the BSO’s assistant conductors, made his once-a-year subscription series appearance count, blending the premiere of Lee’s Formosan Triptych, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C with soloist Till Fellner, and Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony (Polish) to create a stylish program. The centerpiece was clearly the Taiwanese collaboration, marked by the composer’s success in creating an accessible but complex symphonic language from disparate instrumentation, scales, and styles.

ChihChun Chi-sun Lee’s latest work is a BSO commission.

Each of  the movements in Lee’s Formosan Triptych has its distinctive native origin – Bunun vocal music in the opening; Hok-lo folklore, also a rich vocal tradition, in the middle movement; and the southern Taiwanese Hakka music, pervasively percussive in the finale.

Its texture and its once-in-a-lifetime sonic qualities come from extended techniques, especially in the brass and winds, as well as the inclusion of five percussionists. Microtonality blends with tempered Western scales, adding a luscious uncertainty to harmonies.

Each movement derives from sharply different origins, and sounds it. Bunun singing is mimicked by horn and wind players humming pitches through their instruments in the opener.

The middle movement also evokes vocal music deliberately – a wind melody, passed individually through the section, is buttressed by the sound of an ocean drum, a handheld percussion instrument that can sound like a rain stick. The movement switches to a Western approach (“Mahler-like,” says the instruction to the horns), introduced by swelling strings, which culminates in a lovely marimba/vibraphone/xylophone trio. The finale pits the five percussionists in a call-and-response (or argument) with the rest of the orchestra.

Overall, Formosan Triptych seems to form gradually out of chaos. The breathy, whooshing sound from humming into mouthpieces that opens the work creates a soft palette of tone colors. The opening movement maintains that uncertain quality, exotic and searching. The middle movement, highlighted by the unusual ocean drum and tremolo strings, sounds like the sea. The melody passing individually through the winds floats above it. The finale, announced with a fanfare, adds wood blocks to the trio of mallet percussion and engages the orchestra in an neighborly quarrel.

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The meter is marked 4/4 almost all the way through, but rarely sounds squared up. Chang kept a genial, loose pulse, swaying between the downbeats. This gave the work a grounded but human quality.

Chihchun Chi-sun Lee takes a bow with Chang and the Boston musicians after the premiere of ‘Formosa Triptych.’

Formosan Triptych sounded simultaneously exotic and accessible. Lee clearly knew the sounds she wished to convey, and its complexities were clearly investigated by Chang. About 15 minutes long, the work is an inviting, unusual concert opener that should be heard again on other programs.

Mozart’s vast piano concerto achievements reached a pinnacle in the years 1784–86, with a dozen creations in that formidable period. Piano Concerto No. 25, the last of that group, adds timpani and brass (two trumpets) in the outer movements to Mozart’s usual instrumental mix, making this work in C major more forceful.

Till Fellner, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, chose Alfred Brendel’s cadenzas.

None of Mozart’s concertos shortchange the soloist, but this one makes every effort to be symphonic. Fellner often found himself initiating short phrases and turning them loose for the winds to complete the examination. Constant doublings from flute, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet give the concerto a luster. As grand as this concerto can sound, its true appeal relies on Mozart’s great passion for winds and his great artistry in writing for them.

The performance itself, however, was uneven. Some of the piano phrasing had a sort of undernourished articulation – the notes were all there, but the whole was no greater than those notes. Fellner chose cadenzas by a mentor, the great Alfred Brendel. The most substantial cadenza, in the first movement, sounds every bit like Brendel himself, but not very much like Mozart.

The BSO has only managed to perform Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – subtitled Polish from the hints of polonaise in the finale – twice in the last century. The Third could just as easily be subtitled “Rhenish,” as it mimics Schumann’s five-movement symphony. Or “German,” from its second movement “alla Tedesca” (in German style) marking. Or even “Russian,” from the heavy borrowings in its Scherzo.

Whatever its nickname, the work has appeal that makes its scarcity on concert programs a mystery. Each of the movements showcases a corner of Tchaikovsky’s genius: varied dance rhythms, symphonic textures in the Scherzo, operatic sounding melodic passages. Lyrical to a fault, the Third builds to an inspirational chorale and fugue in its final movement.

Chang conducted every single measure with intention, and the orchestra responded with equal intensity. His confidence and fluid direction were central to the success of the performance.

The program repeats Jan. 21. For information, go here or call 866-266-1200.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Gannett, Opera News and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.