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Review: Chicago Philharmonic Shows Off Bountiful Talent in Tan Dun’s Concertos

The Chicago Philharmonic mirrored the kaleidoscope of Chicago diversity of their performance of several works, including two concertos by composer Tan Dun and one by The Chicago Phil’s composer in residence, Reinaldo Moya. The concert featured solo performances by guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Joshua Roman, pipa player Wei Yang, percussionist Peter Ferry, and Philharmonic member Mimi Tachouet on flute. Conducting the excellent performance at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Saturday night was Scott Speck.

Opening the evening was Wei Yang on the pipa, a mandolin-shaped string instrument with origins in the Han Dynasty. Yang played a song that had rhythms of flamenco and floating discordant notes shaped into a beautiful frenzy of sound.

Up next was the music for which Tan Dun is best known, which accompanied Ang Lee’s epic film from 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Tan set the piece as a cello concerto in six movements. Saturday night’s performance featured Philharmonic guest artists Joshua Roman on the cello and percussionist Peter Ferry.

The music’s atmospheric feel creates an elemental synesthesia effect.that reported the atmospheric blend of the elements and the Yi Ching oracle. Conductor Scott Speck gave a preview of the Tan Dun concerto by recalling the actors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon flying above the bamboo forest at night. It was an apt description of the sound journey taken that night.

Joshua Roman and Maestro Scott Speck. Photo by Anne Ryan.

The Yi Ching (aka I Ching) is an ancient oracle of divination known as The Book of Changes, which much like tarot, provides cultural archetypes that are influenced by the elements of metal, earth, wind, fire, and water.

For me, the music had a physical feeling made more evident by how the guest artists played their instruments in unconventional ways. String and percussion instruments lean into the body in a way that reverberates the sound for the player. This was an evening of the artist becoming one with their instrument. Roman’s style of bowing and using a guitar pick as well as beating out a rhythm on the body of the cello, creates a cinematic feel and otherworldly sounds.

Peter Ferry. Photo by Anne Ryan.

Speaking of otherworldly, percussionist Peter Ferry gave a texture to the concerto, literally weaving through the orchestra. The percussionists of the Philharmonic gave a great performance in sync with Ferry. I had to call on a couple of music friends to find out about one instrument that Ferry had in his repertoire. The waterphone was particularly eye-catching with its tines and theremin sound when bowed. It is a sinuous wail that evokes fog and mystery. The ethereal flute playing from Philharmonic member Mimi Tachouet on Crouching Tiger Concerto added the element of air and of birds sweeping through that same forest atmosphere.

After the intermission, the Philharmonic and Joshua Roman played the world premiere of Rise a cello concertino by the Philharmonic Composer in Residence Reinaldo Moya, who introduced the piece via video from Spain. Rise was composed by Moya to honor the memory of his brother Manuel who died in 2022. It is beautiful and elegiac, expressing shock, grief, and anger through Roman’s cello part in counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra. The denouement of Rise reflects a walking through and rejoining the flow and rhythm of the world according to Moya.

Sharon Isbin and Maestro Scott Speck. Photo by Anne Ryan

The final work of the evening was the world premier of Dun’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Yi2)., with Sharon Isbin on the guitar. According to Dun, it is the follow-up to Yi1 which explored the elements of fire and water. The composition was an exciting finale to a cross-cultural evening of exquisite sounds. Isbin also leans into her instrument so that it seems an extension of herself. She and Speck shared phrases of percussion with claps, and foot stomps, and Isbin slapping out a beat on her guitar.

It was a bright and energizing moment before Isbin gave an encore bow. She sat down and said, “I think you just want to hear a tune”, to which the audience enthusiastically cheered. Isbin played a beautiful Venezuelan waltz called Natalia written by one of her teachers, composer Antonio Lauro named after his daughter.

A perfect end to a wonderful evening of a journey through a global musical soundscape. I highly recommend that you avail yourself of the music by these artists. By whatever means you get your music- video, vinyl, or streaming- you should take a deep listen to the music by any of these composers or players. It is a four-star experience. This production of the Chicago Philharmonic is part of the 2022-2023 Symphonic Season at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at 205 East Randolph in downtown Chicago. The Philharmonic is a treasure created by Chicago musicians with a really great community outreach program. For more information please visit their website where you can get information about all of the guest artists as well.

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