Review: Romance in air at MSO performance

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra wallowed in romance this weekend.

The most intriguing allure in the MSO's Masterworks series concerts was violinist Gil Shaham's extraordinary performance of the "Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto" by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao.

Shaham -- who has been welcomed to Memphis many times over the years -- showed again why he excites audiences.

He sustains exactly the right balance of technical ability and emotional expressiveness. To watch Shaham is to see a player who is at ease, often smiling at other performers or when a passage burns with perfection. He doesn't convey much intensity -- some performers go all out to make sure you see that -- but instead he devotes himself to attacking with precision, sawing with passion and delivering gorgeous cascades of music from his Stradivarius.

The "Butterfly Lovers" piece is a favorite that Shaham has championed for several years. Not only is it based on a traditional love story, often referred to as the Chinese Romeo and Juliet, but just a few years after the tone poem was composed in 1959, it was banned by the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s for being too Western and insufficiently dour and Communistic.

Its popularity could not be contained, however, and the concerto has since become emblematic of Chinese culture and increasingly exposed to Western audiences. The MSO's Taiwan-born maestro, Mei-Ann Chen, enthusiastically noted how it represents national pride and then led the audience in a quick lesson on pronouncing Chinese names.

The work itself blends Chinese musical structures with a Western orchestration. It's a gorgeous work firmly steeped in traditional musical expressions and the MSO played beautifully.

The opening work of the weekend's concerts (at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts Saturday and the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Sunday) was excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet.

Complementing the well-executed performance was the staging of scenes from Shakespeare's classic tragedy by members of the Hattiloo Theatre.

The collaboration is commendable, and another in a series of efforts by the MSO to incorporate other aspects of art and performance into its concerts. The lush Prokofiev score tended to overwhelm the spare and sometimes awkward scenes the Hattiloo troupe presented and the overall result was not entirely successful.

Collaborations should be encouraged, however. Arts organizations around town are doing more of them with great innovation and creative success. Just keep working on the details.