Tom Strini

Chen’s spectacular “Unveiling Iris”

By - May 5th, 2012 01:33 am

Xiaoduo Chen


Meng Meng

Anything can happen in the sonic Wonderland of Qigang Chen’s Iris dévoilée. The Milwaukee Symphony played Chen’s 2002 nine-part suite Friday evening, and will play it again next Friday at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Iris dévoilée will share the Carnegie program with Debussy’s La Mer and Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées (the MSO played both in Milwaukee last week). Music director Edo de Waart’s program makes perfect sense, as Debussy influenced Messiaen and Messaien was Chen’s principal teacher. Chen, born in Shanghai in 1951, has lived in France since 1984.

The influence of the two prior composers is clear in Iris dévoilée. Debussy lives especially in the dreamy, luxurious  major ninth and augmented 11th chords Chen often lavishes on the string sections. Messiaen rings in those shimmering high harmonics and metal percussion episodes.

But you’d never mistake this music for either Debussy or Messaien. Chen has made a hybrid of Chinese and French musical sensibilities. The most striking feature of Iris dévoilée is Peking Opera soprano Meng Meng and the music Chen assigned her. Most of it very much in the feline, nasal timbre of Chinese opera and given to broad bending of pitches on single vowels. My experience with Chinese opera is scant, but I adored Meng’s singing; her sound was rich within the confines of the conventions, and her utter assurance with Chen’s gestural writing went a long way toward putting over this piece.

Meng’s singing blended with Wei-Yang Andy Lin’s erhu to the point that I sometimes mistook the traditional two-string Chinese violin for singing. More remarkable was the way Meng contrasted sharply yet somehow harmonized in spirit with soprano Xiaoduo Chen, who could have been singing Puccini (very well). Two worlds came together in those two voices. (By the way, I wish we’d had a photographer there; the singers wore two of the most spectacular gowns — Chen’s Western, Meng’s Chinese traditional — I’ve ever seen on the concert stage.)

Wu Man on pipa (lute) and Yang Yi on zheng (a zither tuned pentatonically) played smaller roles in the scheme of things. But the pipa added tense tremolando effects and put an edge on some melodies. Yi’s solo, to start the “Melancholic” section, was the most intimate moment of the evening, especially following the cacophonous blast of “Jealousy.”

All the sections have names: “Ingenious,” “Libertine,” “Chaste,” “Hysterical,” Voluptous,” “Tender” and “Sensitive” complete the nine. The composer would “unveil Iris,” the Greek goddess of the rainbow, and thus “show the different faces of a woman.” The music does reflect the moods — every woman on the stage screamed bloody murder to open “Hysterical,” for example. But I wouldn’t worry too much about tracking the movements, which isn’t easy. Some episodes are like sound sculptures, all floating gestures. Some build on ostinatos and motor rhythms. Some bits bloom with a brand of lush beauty not too far from a Nelson Riddle arrangement. But then there was that bloodcurdling screaming and those high dissonances and the pentatonics and the Chinese instruments. Just let yourself go and take in the passing fantastical landscape.

Very little in this piece is virtuosic in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t make it easy. The coordination is tricky, and the gestures and exclamations must be hard to grasp on the page. De Waart did not merely direct traffic, he inspired and energized the large number of people assembled for Iris dévoilée. The orchestra played this strange piece with great vigor and understanding.

They did the same with the familiar, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. De Waart was so wise to repeat the exposition of the first movement, with its principal theme at once majestic and serene, the second theme charming and intimate, and muscular closing theme. De Waart poured more fuel on the closing theme the second time around, to build urgency going into the fevered, waltzing version of itself that opens the development.

De Waart understands the character of this piece down to its roots and made its profound drama clear every step of the way. The essence of Brahms in general and the Symphony No. 3 in particular is of hot feeling controlled and channeled into sublime beauty. In his faith in the ennobling power of restraint, Brahms is Mozart’s protege more than Beethoven’s. While the rest of the Romantics were spilling their guts, Brahms’ music spoke for modesty and self-control rather than unbridled passion. The intensity of the passion makes the restraint all the more noble and poignant.

All of that was there to be heard in this passionate, restrained, noble performance by de Waart and the MSO.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 5. For tickets, visit the MSO website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.


The goddess Iris, as depicted on a Greek vase, looks busy. Chen didn’t cover “busy.” Courtesy of the Classical Art Research Center and the Beazley Archive, University of Oxford.

0 thoughts on “MSO: Chen’s spectacular “Unveiling Iris””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice review. Some quick impressions from Friday night’s concert: Brahms’ Third was an old, familiar piece played very well. But with no new revelations. Chen’s Iris devoilee, on the other hand, WAS a revelation. Nothing could have prepared me for it. To begin, Meng Meng’s classic Chinese operatic singing was so mannered, so controlled, so precise, and so beautiful in its way. I have never heard anything like it before. And Xiaoduo Chen’s more conventional operatic singing was absolutely ravishing. The last movement put me in mind of Holsts’ Planets, especially the outer planets—Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. One small complaint about the audience—It seems there is always someone who feels he or she must applaud IMMEDIATELY after the last note of a piece is played. It happened again last night with the Brahms. It would be so much better to simply let that moment ripen and to savor it, before starting the applause.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Iris devoilee was an extraordinary example of expressionist music. Emotions were as raw as those exposed by Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, but with nine distinct flavors. The sensation was as visceral as Charles Munch’s Scream and as tender as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.

    The singers demonstrated how effective voice can be as an instrument integrated with the orchestra. The erhu demonstrated that an instrument can sound like a voice. The Milwaukee players demonstrated that they could master the unique sounds of Eastern music.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting, Paul and Michael. And Paul, you’re right about that annoying impulse on someone’s part to be first to applaud. I like that quiet three or four seconds of silence after a performance, that let-it-sink-in moment. — Strini

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us