... sultry string melodies unfold gently evoking Chinese folk music
But this [...] was just the opening act for the main event of the night: the U.S. premiere of a new piece that the NJSO co-commissioned from Chinese composer Qigang Chen. The 24-minute violin concerto premiered in Beijing two years ago and has been performed often since.
This performance led by Zhang—also featuring the welcome return of virtuoso Ning Feng to the Garden State—shows why it’s getting so much play. Under Zhang’s baton, Chen’s concerto opened with a more dramatic downbeat and then a slower solo melody for Feng’s violin. Soon sultry strings melodies unfold gently evoking Chinese folk music. The solo violin playing then turns spiky and skittering—much more modern sounding even as the background orchestral sounds maintain its pastoral calm. Eventually this flips and the orchestral chugs out minimalist melodies as the violin playing long arpeggios that suggest early eastern music. This contrast is what keeps the piece interesting.
The other strongpoint of this new piece is that Chen is unafraid of vibrant melodies — and yet he backs them up with complex orchestrations so the concerto neither feels neither baldly old-fashioned nor too hip and coy. It’s also a great showcase for Feng’s talents. The 37-year old fiddle player from Chengdu, China dazzled Jersey audiences with his playing of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto two season back—and he was equally strong again Saturday night at NJPAC. Feng was understated in premiering Chen’s new piece – he favors a light touch with his playing, letting the music flow through him rather than making himself the center of it.