The Boston Symphony Orchestra has not historically had particularly close ties to Taiwan, but this week’s program, coming in the wake of a hopeful presidential election, gestures decidedly toward the “beautiful island.”
That phrase, as this week’s symphony-goers learned, is the translation for “Ilha Formosa,” the name attached to Taiwan by Portuguese explorers in 1542. It stuck until the 19th century.
The composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee — who is, rather eye-openingly, the first Taiwanese-born composer ever to have a work performed by the BSO — has reclaimed the name Formosa in the title of her new work, “Formosan Triptych,” a BSO commission given its premiere on Thursday night.
One might say the work’s name cuts in both directions. If its history suggests a colonialist perspective imposed on a land with a vibrant history all its own, this gesture is in some ways reproduced by the very conception of the piece: “Formosa” is a tribute to indigenous musical traditions of Taiwan rendered almost entirely by Western instruments, that is, with Western voices once again “naming” these beautiful sounds.
But of course, “Formosan Triptych” is also this time the vision of a composer who is herself Taiwanese, a voice addressing the traditions of her own native land. That Lee herself grew up studying Western music in Taiwan, and that she had to wait until living in the United States for graduate training before having access to formal study of the Taiwanese language — because that language has been actively suppressed by China in favor of Mandarin — are yet further layers in this complex global story.
The music is also, befittingly, complex — or at least difficult to perform, but rather arresting to hear. A trio of impressionistic canvases in sound, “Formosan Triptych” is imagined with extraordinary precision and realized with impressive control. Lee’s gestures of homage to Taiwanese indigenous traditions also blend seamlessly — at least to these Western ears — with her own elaborations on the very traditions she has honored.
Across the three movements, those traditions include, respectively, the harvest ritual music (pasibutbut) of the Bunun tribe, a Taiwanese folk song, and the Hakka music of the Meinong district of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. To draw from a Western orchestra the sounds required to approximate these indigenous styles, Lee asks her performers to deploy all manner of extended techniques, especially, in the winds and brass, a range of blurred tones known as multiphonics. On Thursday, the orchestra compellingly executed this daunting assignment and was led with focus and admirable precision by Yu-An Chang, the Taiwanese-born BSO assistant conductor here making his subscription debut. Under his baton, “Formosan Triptych” came across as freshly conceived and sonically engrossing.
On the other end of the night loomed Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, a work that lives deep in the shadow of the composer’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies. (The Third was last heard in Symphony Hall a quarter-century ago.) Perhaps one can chalk it up to nerves but Chang’s work here was more uneven. There was plenty of characterful playing from the orchestra, but too often spirited tempos tipped over toward unrelenting breathlessness, and a deeper sense of the work’s larger expressive arcs proved elusive.
Yet between these two pieces, as a kind of beautiful island all its own, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, here given a shapely, lucid, and unflashy performance by the Austrian pianist Till Fellner. In Mozart’s sublime slow movement, solos by flutist Elizabeth Ostling and oboist Keisuke Wakao gracefully underscored the music’s inward-drawing qualities. In this score, Chang proved a capable and sensitive accompanist.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Yu-An Chang, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 16 (repeats Jan. 18 and 21)