in: News & Features

May 22, 2012

Dinosaur’s “Annex” in Beijing


BMInt invited Boston’s 37-year-old contemporary music group Dinosaur Annex, to submit articles on its tour in China at the Beijing Modern Music Festival. This is the first.

The Beijing Modern Music Festival, for those like your correspondent who had no inkling, is an annual event that, having begun 10 years ago as a chiefly domestic operation, rapidly developed into an international event combining orchestral and chamber concerts, master classes, workshops, and lectures.

It is funded both privately and by the Chinese ministries of culture and education and operates out of the facilities of the Central Conservatory of Music, whose director, Wang Cizhao, is the festival’s titular producer. The festival’s founder, composer Xiaoging Ye (who, like several other people we observed among the creative set prefers to order his name Western-style), is the artistic director. Students at the CCM and other Chinese music schools staff the festival and supplement the imported and native professional ensembles.

There have been many eminent Western ensembles who have performed at the festival, beginning in its first “international” year, 2004, with the New York New Music Ensemble and the Ensemble Zurich. This year’s complement includes Boston’s Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, the newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble from Kansas City, Missouri, and the Third Angle Ensemble Consort from Portland, Oregon. Many of the foreign composers whose works are featured have shown up as well, including James Mobberley and Chen Yi, both now affiliated with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Boston’s Scott Wheeler and Yu-Hui Chang (whose surname the festival program printers have “corrected” in transliteration as Zhang), Stephen Hartke, Robert Beaser, Norbert Palej (a Pole now resident in Canada), Enjott Schneider from Germany, and Narong Prangcharoen from Thailand.

The venues for performances are spread out over downtown Beijing, from the Concert Hall of the elephantine “egg” of the National Center for Performing Arts (about which more later), to the nearby mid-sized and user-friendly Beijing Concert Hall, to the more intimate concert and recital halls of CCM.

The festival’s opening concert at the NCPA Concert Hall was an orchestral program called “At the Edge of Time” after a Schneider piece on the program. The orchestra was the China NCPA Orchestra, an internationally recruited band formed contemporaneously with the Center four years ago and conducted by Lv Jia. This dispatch does not purport to be a review but will describe what went on as an insight into creative enterprise in today’s China. Some of the physical circumstances proved enlightening in their own right.

The Concert Hall is one of four performance spaces within the vast NCPA, which carries forward the tradition of grandiosity that gave the world the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Hall of the People’s Congress, to say nothing of the forbidding monoliths lining Financial Street, and is accessible directly from the subway (fare: 2 yuan, or 37¢). If you have your ticket, you are processed through the ubiquitous security scanner. China has them everywhere: in the subway, and even in open spaces like Tiananmen, but this one is doubly diligent: bags through the x-ray and wand searches. Not only is photography prohibited in the hall, but anyone with a camera is sternly ordered to check it. Bottled water, which everyone carries because tap water is not potable, is also verboten, and not because they sell it inside (one could refresh oneself at the bubbler, or as they charmingly call it, the “hydrant”). Of course, once in the hall, people were snapping pics left and right. Phones are not confiscated.

Another thing that might astonish those accustomed to stateside contemporary music concerts was the packed house. At a guess, the Concert Hall holds a good 1,500 seats minimum, and there were bottoms in nearly all of them. Whether the ears indirectly attached to those bottoms expected to hear what they did is another matter: applause for almost everything was, considering the size of the audience, rather wan and brief by the admittedly rather inflated US standards. The per-capita consumption of music education in China is higher than just about any place, and we suspect many teachers made a point of having their students, and the students’ parents, attend. It’s anybody’s guess how many attendees actually bought tickets.

Those of you who attend closely to matters acoustical may find it interesting that from where we sat, well forward in the orchestra section, the sound of the strings and, to a degree, even the solo piano, was rather muffled. It is possible that the acoustic design throws the sound upward (the seating is raked); nobody we knew was seated far enough back for us to compare experiences.

The event began, as so many festivals do, with a round of acknowledgments to sponsors and organizers. What we didn’t see coming was how this was done. An emcee in big hair and sequined tuxedo (and — wait for it, a sequined bow tie!) read off the necessaries, and the honorees and their official award presenters were then escorted to the stage by a bevy of lovelies in long gowns doing their best Vanna White imitations. These then handed each presenter, in uniform sequence, a dust-catcher trophy, a leather-bound certificate, and a bouquet; the presenters handed these over to the honorees in time-honored photo-op poses. This process, we were informed, is quite common in China.

The actual concert that followed happened in pretty much the normal way. The program featured Chen’s Blue, Blue Sky, Prangcharoen’s Illuminations, and the aforementioned Schneider work, At the Edge of Time, before the intermission; then Zou Hang’s The Color of Beijing and Beaser’s Piano Concerto afterwards, the latter with British soloist Christopher Janwong McKiggan (that middle name bespeaking an ethnic Chinese Thai mother). Anyone who has heard Chen’s music would know what to expect: milky sonorities balancing Chinese tradition with Western craft. To a Chinese audience this was not new news. The Prangcharoen was something else, a statement that high modernism still lives in an Asian wrapper. Schneider’s piece quotes from and stitches together fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and had been part of the quarter-millennium Mozart celebrations of 2006. In sharp contrast to these somewhat cerebral and ethereal exercises, the two post-intermission works were unabashedly populist. Zou has been active as a composer of film and TV scores in addition to standard classical genres, and his piece on the program, though written without a specific event in mind, is somewhat in the spirit of John Williams, especially with its fanfare opening; although sonically, with its patriotic-folkloric affect and quartal harmonies it conveys a sense of — how shall we say? — Chinese Copland. (Fanfare for the Common Cadre, anyone?) The concluding work was the Beaser, written originally for the Louisville Orchestra in the days of Leonard Slatkin. Its mash-up of Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, Barber and — in its opening central motif — Vaughan Willliams over a Rachmaninovian piano texture was the work that brought the hitherto reserved audience to exuberant life.

In future days we hope to bring you some more vignettes of the festival and other musical events here (hoping to get tickets for Un Ballo in Maschera). Stay tuned.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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