Angelo Xiang Yu & Andrew Hsu review: Instant chemistry

Chamber Music Northwest duo's intuitive aesthetic accord produces memorable music

It was really about the best that could be hoped for when musicians meet to rehearse together for the first time only a few days before a performance. That’s typical for Chamber Music Northwest concerts, in which top musicians from New York and beyond converge on Portland for five weeks, usually with time for only a few rehearsals. Luckily, as violinist Angelo Xiang Yu assured the audience during his July 27 two-man show at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre with pianist and composer Andrew Hsu, the two intuitively agreed on their interpretations.

Their simpatico styles may explain why the tightest works were a Mozart sonata (K 378) and CMNW Protege Project composer Hsu’s own piece, Sea Meadows. The Mozart is relatively easy to put together, and that enabled them to pump real life and personality into it despite the whirlwind rehearsal schedule. Sea Meadows was deliciously atmospheric, pulseless with an easy-sounding piano part. It really just needed a top-notch violinist, and Yu was all of that, executing lots of harmonics and double-stops, all seemingly flawlessly and with feeling.

Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and composer/pianist Andrew Hsu performed at the The Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Lange.
Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and composer/pianist Andrew Hsu performed at the The Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The other performances were a mixed bag. Claude Debussy’s violin sonata had plenty of spirit but didn’t really jell, in some elusive way. Cesar Franck’s famous sonata was full of passion as it should be, with lots of dynamic and tempo contrasts, but the short rehearsal told in details, such as the piano covering up the violin here and there, and a few phrases that would have gained needed intensity from lingering over them or adding even more energy. On the other hand, the end of the stormy second movement was way exciting. It’s a bit tricky because Franck didn’t give the last piano run a lot of oomph, but the duo made it careen right into Hsu’s last big thunderous chord.

For some reason the crowd took it into their heads to applaud in between each movement of everything, even tepidly after slow and soft movements. They were about ready to burst after this dramatic conclusion, but the pianist immediately hit the chord opening the slow movement, cutting them off. It was an understandable move, but it had an anticlimactic side effect. Applause there would have been good for scene setting, and was also richly deserved.

The very end was more elegant than explosive, but the crowd just went crazy; you’d hardly know the hall was less than half full. People didn’t just hoot and holler, there were calls of “more!” “more!” Hsu and Yu wound up doing two potboiler encores: Vittorio Monti’s gypsy fluff Csárdás and Edward Elgar’s Romantic fluff Salut d’Amour. The audience would have stayed for at least one more. Finally, during the curtain call after the second encore Yu smiled and mouthed at people “go home,” which slightly diminished what had been a total class act. People just laughed, though.

Hsu & Yu at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.
Hsu & Yu at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Yu seems quite a character. He talked to the crowd a little, just after intermission, and had them almost eating out of his hand. At one point he said he was envious of Hsu because he looked so hot. That got a big (seemingly appreciative) laugh. He didn’t always have the sweetest tone, or invariably play precisely in tune, but somehow his “lapses” seemed like part of his intended expression. He achieved quite a bit of expressive variation in tone quality by bowing in different places along the string, without ever getting right on the bridge or over the fingerboard. In another performer, it might have seemed like lack of control, but the force of his personality made me believe in him. What matters is that it worked for me and the audience.

Lack of rehearsal time seems to be an unavoidable evil of the festival format, when the practicalities of busy top-notch artists’ schedules are considered. The result, too often, is a good, smooth, but lackluster performance, which CMNW patrons admittedly happily tolerate in return for the concentrated variety of festival repertory. Sometimes though, when interpersonal chemistry, skill, and attitude are right as they were here, magic can still happen.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. 

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About the author

Jeff Winslow is a fourth-generation Oregonian who studied music and electronics at University of California-Berkeley, getting serious about composition in the mid-1990s as High Modernism finally relinquished its death grip on the world of art music. His work has been performed by fEARnoMUSIC, The Ensemble of Oregon, and the Resonance Ensemble, and also at Cascadia Composers, Seventh Species, Cherry Blossom Musical Arts, and Oregon Bach Festival concerts, as well as several other locations around the region, often with the composer at the piano. A recent piano work, “Lied ohne Worte (lieber mit Ligeti)” received honorable mention from Friends and Enemies of New Music, a New York-based composers’ group. He is a founding member of Cascadia Composers, a chapter of NACUSA centered on the lower watershed of the Columbia River.

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