Chang’s Boston Symphony series debut reveals a talented young man in a hurry

January 17, 2020 at 12:06 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Yu-An Chang leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Third on Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Give Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Yu-An Chang credit: His BSO subscription series debut Thursday night at Symphony Hall ticked off all the conductorial boxes — new-music champion, accompanist, symphonic interpreter — and did so with a degree of programmatic originality one shouldn’t take for granted.

To start, there was the world premiere of Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee’s Formosan Triptych. A fourteen-minute-long BSO commission that draws on folk musics from Lee’s native Taiwan, it brims with striking colors and gestures.

The first of Triptych’s three movements evokes the ritual harvest music of Taiwan’s Bunun tribe, indigenous people known for their multipart singing. Much of the movement’s tension is driven by the contrast between microtonal and equal-tempered harmonies; amid and around these come various other sonorities, including sul ponticello string tremolos and woodwind multiphonics.

In the second movement, plaintive melodic fragments recall the folklore of another of Taiwan’s ethnic groups, the Hoklo. Additionally, the music utilizes various percussion instruments and extended techniques, while also building on devices heard earlier in the Triptych.

The rhythmically-driven finale draws on traditional Taiwanese Hakka music and culminates in a remarkable series of percussive figures passed across the orchestra: gongs, col legno strings, thudding drums, trumpet riffs, trombone glissandos and the like combine to create a delicious aural mélange.

Indeed, sonically, the Triptych is a feast. However, its expressive depths remain unclear, at least after a single hearing. Between a seemingly disjunct structure and a dearth of bracing musical ideas — little else was as captivating as the opening movement’s duel between tempered and non-tempered sound worlds — Lee’s score wasn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, Chang and the BSO seemed to have the piece’s tricky technical demands solidly in hand. The orchestra played with rhythmic assurance and plenty of verve, though bolder contrasts of dynamism and gesture might have given Formosan Triptych a stronger sense of shape.

Up next was Mozart’s radiant Piano Concerto no. 25 featuring keyboardist Till Fellner, an Austrian with a terrific feel for Mozart’s style and the ability to bring it thrillingly to life.

This he did on Thursday, delivering an opening movement that was clean, well-balanced, and elegantly played — but also rhythmically crisp and freely shaped. The second movement was likewise lyrically etched and well-directed, and playful and melancholy figures alternated gamely in the ingratiating yet bittersweet finale.

Chang and the BSO provided Fellner a vital, sensitive accompaniment throughout. A full complement of strings obscured some of the woodwind detail-work in the Concerto’s first movement, but the orchestra stayed on its toes, getting its balances across the stage agreeably settled by the middle of the second movement, and it never once upstaged the piano. Particularly fine were the several solos from flautist Elizabeth Ostling and oboist Keisuke Wakao.

Chang rounded out his debut with Tchaikovsky’s most obscure symphony, the Third.

Neither his most rigorous nor profound work, this five-movement 1875 score nonetheless overflows with great tunes and intimations of what would come in Tchaikovsky’s later output. Its qualities proved quite fine, indeed, on Thursday.

After an unpromising introduction, the first movement swung spiritedly into gear, its textures lean and energy level never flagging. The lilting woodwind waltz in the second movement was beautifully counterbalanced by its warm, lyrical string writing, while the Scherzo’s mischievous exchanges between woodwinds and strings were fleetly done.

For much of the piece, Chang managed to avoid two of the Symphony’s biggest pitfalls — stodgy phrasing and thickets of verbosity — by driving tempos hard. In so doing, though, he created another set of obstacles that weren’t entirely overcome.

This was most evident in the central “Andante elegiaco” and in the finale, where Chang’s tendency to push ahead wreaked havoc.

Notwithstanding beautifully-blended woodwind refrains, the andante simply needed to slow down and breathe; here it lacked soul. And the frenzied opening tempo of the finale didn’t leave the music any room to grow; it only became more insistent as it proceeded. The result was a finale that, while lucidly balanced, was mostly bombastic and a mite hysterical.

Taken together, then, Chang’s Tchaikovsky Three was a mixed bag: impressive in spots, impetuous in others. It revealed a conductor with real promise and talent – but also room to grow.

The program repeats 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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