China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra at the Kennedy Center
Monday, November 10, 2014 at 04:47PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 4, 2014

Classical music may be hanging on for dear life in the United States, but in China, it’s just getting into high gear. The conservatories are packed, state-of-the-art concert halls are blossoming and new ensembles are forming at a rapid clip. So it was fascinating to hear the China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra — at seven years old, among the youngest in the new crop — present a distinctive and often quite powerful program at the Kennedy Center on Monday night.

Yuja WangThe performance, part of the orchestra’s inaugural North American tour, opened with perhaps the most captivating work on the program, the 1999 orchestral suite “Wu Xing (The Five Elements)” from composer Chen Qigang. It’s a meditative work of great delicacy, evoking the essence of water, fire, earth, wood and metal through nuanced, intuitive textures and otherworldly colors. Conductor Lü Jia took an appropriately minimalist approach, drawing a transparent, beautifully detailed reading from the orchestra.

Yuja Wang, a dynamic young pianist who has been winning acclaim for her recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, joined the orchestra for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Wang’s technique is dazzling, and she lets you know it. It was one of the more high-octane takes on Ravel you could ever hope to hear — glittering and sparkling as it raced from start to finish. Great fun, but the orchestra (the wind section, in particular) was sometimes left gasping in the dust and so, to these ears, was some of the music’s character, which needs a little more room to breathe.

Dvorak’s richly melodic Symphony No. 8 closed the program. It was a wise choice. Lü Jia has built his reputation in opera and has a great feel for the kind of outsized drama and sweeping gestures that this symphony abounds in. The orchestra seemed fully in its element as well, turning in a big-boned reading full of soaring, thundering grace and exceptionally fine playing from the strings.

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