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Collaborative Playing Rewards Fusion of Western, Chinese Traditions


“Magic Strings: a dialogue between pipa and violin,” the concert on Saturday, September 27, at 8 pm in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, brought together Boston-born violinist Lynn Chang and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. The soloists were supported by the Far Cry string ensemble and the BeatCity Art Ensemble of percussionists under Robert Schulz. Sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts and dedicated to the memory of composer Leon Kirchner, who died on September 17, the program featured music by two composers whose music fuses Western and Asian traditions.

Chinese-born Chen Yi studied at the Beijing Central Conservatory and at Columbia University and currently teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Lou Harrison (1917-2003) spent most of his life in San Francisco, with trips to Taiwan, Korean, Japan and Indonesia to study Asian music.

Pear-shaped like a lute, the ancient Chinese pipa is held vertically; it has four strings and numerous closely-spaced frets and is capable of widely expressive and virtuosic flights of plucked sound. Known for her performances with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man has done much to bring her instrument to the attention of Western listeners.

Chen Yi’s Ancient Dances for pipa and a single percussionist was written for Wu Man and inspired by poems of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. The three movements — “Cheering,” “Longing,” and “Wondering” — ranged from the dreamy to the exuberant, the subtle percussion an ideal foil for  Wu Man’s expressive playing. In Chen Yi’s “Sprout” for string orchestra, ancient Chinese melodies are woven together using western contrapuntal and harmonic idioms. The Far Cry Chamber Orchestra, standing (except for the cellists) and without conductor, delivered this piece with a wonderful sense of collaborative energy. The ensemble was joined by Lynn Chang and Jae Young Cosmos Lee in Chen Yi’s “Romance” and “Dance” for two violins and strings. In the Romance, the lyrical, largely pentatonic melodic lines of the soloists were accompanied by plucked string sounds in the orchestra, imitating the ancient ch’in. In the Dance, the orchestra provided dissonant harmonies against fast-moving solo parts.

Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra combines traditional romantic concerto form in three movements, including a wonderful slow cadenza in the second movement, with a percussion ensemble that includes such “junk” instruments as pipes, flower pots, and coffee cans, along with a bass viol turned on its back. Lynn Chang’s beautiful tone and phrasing soared through it all with expressive conviction. The Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra, one of Harrison’s last works, was written in 1997 for Wu Man and conductor Dennis Russell Davies. It starts off with a “classical” Allegro, which is followed by a second movement, “Bits and Pieces,” that has the pipa playing balalaika style against a chaconne-like ostinato in the orchestra, then partnered with the cello and double bass, all three tapping their instruments percussively, and finally evoking a mandolin. After a lyrical threnody, the concerto ended with a rousingly athletic Estampie that justifiably brought down the house.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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