J.J. Bui, piano; Dashan, poetry recitation; Andrew Eland, magician; Toronto Festival Orchestra, Linhan Cui, conductor; Shawn Moore, concertmaster; Kemin Zhang, host. George Weston Recital Hall, Jan 7, 2023.
After an absence of two years of in-person events due to the Pandemic, the Li Delun Music Foundation’s New Year Concert returned last Saturday to the acoustically friendly George Weston Recital Hall in North York. While virtual concerts over cyberspace the past two years helped alleviate the hunger for live music, nothing could quite replace the excitement and immediacy of an in-person event. Based on the exuberant audience reaction, it’s safe to say that the concert was a huge success.
While the Li DeLun Music Foundation maybe well known to Toronto’s Chinese classical music lovers, it likely lacks sufficient name recognition among the general public. This non-profit foundation is dedicated to the memory of Chinese conductor Li Delun, who was instrumental in the promotion of Western classical music in China from 1946 to his passing in 2001. The Russian-trained Li was conductor of the China Central Philharmonic, arguably the most important symphony orchestra in China. Incidentally, Li also guest-conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1986) and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (1989).
The concert was completely sold out, and more festive than the ones I had attended in the past, with showstopping performances by the Festival Orchestra and soloists. But, unlike previous years when the programs were entirely musical, with a few speeches and acknowledgements sandwiched in between, this year’s concert was not unlike a variety show. In addition to the music, audiences enjoyed poetry recitation, musical improvisations, a ton of comedic bantering, a raffle ticket draw, even a magic card trick! The music proper was under 90 minutes, but with all the extramusical goings-on, it ballooned into a three-hour event. I admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to classical music programming, but seeing the enthusiastic response from the full house, I decided to go with the flow.
Let’s focus first on the music. The most anticipated item for me was the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, played by Chinese Canadian pianist JJ Jun Li Bui. He was one of two Canadian prizewinners at the 18th Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. The other was the First Prize winner Bruce Liu, both students of the great pianist Dang Thai Son, the 1980 Chopin winner. I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. The playing of the Finale of Rach 3 by Mr. Bui was remarkable, with just the right mix of technical prowess and the requisite lyricism. The full house gave him a rapturous ovation, and he went on to give a terrific encore, Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, no. 24.
Also memorable were two chestnuts that one often encounters in New Year concerts in Europe, Frühlingsstimmen Walzer, and the rousing Radetzky March, both by Johann Strauss. The Festival Orchestra played the two pieces with such a felicitous mix of precision and exuberance that one would never have guessed that it was a pickup band assembled for the occasion. Well-deserved kudos to Chinese-born, American-trained Maestra Linhan Cui for a job well done.
The big showpiece of the evening was the last movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, one of the most familiar works in the symphonic repertoire. Cui led the FO forces in a marvellous reading of the beloved score. After huge ovations, the audience was rewarded with the Bacchanale, from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Delilah. This was my first time experiencing her conducting, and I must say Maestra Cui is the real deal. She recently won Second Prize at the Malko International Conducting Competition, and is currently the Gustavo Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the LA Philharmonic. I dare say Maestra Cui is destined for a fine career.
Now for the extramusical items. One novel twist was a recitation of a Chinese poem accompanied by a chamber quintet, a world premiere no less, given it was a newly composed score by Kemin Zhang. The reciter was Dashan, aka Canadian Mark Rowswell, a mega star in China as a media personality and comedian. He was named by the Canadian government in 2012 as a Goodwill Ambassador to China. Dashan also speaks Mandarin like a native, without a trace of accent. His recitation was astounding for its fluency and ease of delivery, not to mention the brain power required to memorize a poem of near-epic length. The audience responded with vociferous ovations, very well deserved.
There was even a magic card trick by Andrew “Magic Man” Eland, an internationally known magician with a long list of credentials. His sleight of hand tricks were indeed awesome, but the long and narrow George Weston Hall was hardly an ideal venue. Even with my mid-orchestra seat, I had some trouble catching all the details, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like seated in the balcony! No matter, the audience gave him a great hand.
There you have it, another Li DeLun New Year Concert, featuring superb musicians performing works that meld East and West. Most of all, it’s terrific entertainment, and a great way to celebrate the new year. For the curious, you can catch snippets of their previous concerts on their YouTube channel here.
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