Wellington’s Victory is the worst piece of music Beethoven ever wrote. He composed it in honor of the battle that drove Napoleon’s forces out of Spain, and it’s essentially a duel between French military music and British tunes like “God Save the King.” When the Duke of Wellington was asked if the real battle was anything like the music, he’s supposed to have said he would have run away if it was. Beethoven described his creation with one of the earthier German words.
War is hellishly loud
Battle pieces have always attracted composers. I’ve heard examples that go all the way back to the Renaissance. Battles are an exciting subject for those of us who’ve never risked a bullet in the face or a bayonet in the intestines. Put in lots of percussion for the cannon. End with a big, noisy climax. How can you miss?
Unfortunately, the genre never produced any works of the first rank. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is probably the best battle epic any composer ever wrote, and no one, including Tchaikovsky, ever considered it a masterpiece of the Russian repertoire. It was composed as a piece d’occasion, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory over Napoleon’s invading army, and it was originally supposed to be presented with sound effects provided by real artillery. The Philadelphia Orchestra continues the tradition by bombarding the sky with fireworks during its summer concerts at the Mann.
Taiwanese composer Yiu-Kwong Chung has upgraded the whole genre with the new piano concerto the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia premiered at its first concert of the season. The title, Red Cliff, refers to a sea battle depicted in a classic Chinese historical novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The concerto ends in a whirling frenzy, but it also includes poetic music that evokes softer and deeper emotions.
Speed, style, and virtuosity
The composer made a critical decision when he decided to create a piano concerto for a small orchestra. The size of the orchestra and the focus on the piano soloist precluded big effects. Its score includes a percussion section (Chung is a percussionist), but he creates most of the climactic fury with the piano and the strings, rather than drums.
Solo pianist Ching-Yun Hu demonstrated her skill and taste in the Mozart concerto that preceded Red Cliff. Her approach to Chung’s score placed the same emphasis on speed, style, and virtuosity.
Red Cliff could be considered a double concerto, since it featured a second guest soloist. Andy Lin added a different world of colors and emotions playing the erhu, a bowed, two-string Chinese instrument with a history that spans 4,000 years. The erhu is sometimes called the Chinese violin but it has a sound all its own, with a natural affinity for long, haunting melody lines. Its inclusion automatically meant the concerto would include something besides bang-bang music.
Red Cliff tells its story in four sections, played without interruption. Three of the sections deal with low-keyed subjects like the recruitment of a reclusive ally and a parting before battle. In the second section, a set of six variations ingeniously suggests the arguments used to recruit the recluse. The finale depicts a squadron of fire ships floating into an enemy fleet and setting it ablaze.
The individual sections in Red Cliff all include beauties and excitements that would be completely effective as pure music. The storyline ties them into an overall structure and enhances the impact of the music.
Red Cliff was the most newsworthy item on the Chamber Orchestra program, even though the rest of the concert included the Mozart concerto, two interesting short pieces, and a Haydn symphony that captured Haydn’s humane grandeur. To me, Chung’s premiere was another example of the harvest the western classical tradition is receiving from the cultures that have adapted it over the last two centuries. The tradition may have started in Europe, but it’s becoming global.