The second general concert of the 2012 Beijing Modern Music Festival on May 20 was a mostly chamber music program performed by an ad hoc assemblage of Chinese musicians, plus guest soloist mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni, and two works conducted by festival Artistic Director Xia Xiaotang (we misspelled his given name in the last installment; apologies for that). The program took place in the Beijing Concert Hall, another modern structure but of more modest proportions than the Concert Hall of the National Center for Performing Arts. The bill of fare sandwiched two works each by Chinese composers Qin Wenchen and Guo Wenjing between American Stephen Hartke’s popular piano quartet The King of the Sun and Dutchman Louis Andriessen’s for mezzo and chamber orchestra.
For the most part, the players were students at the Central Conservatory of Music, and Hartke, the only composer with whom we got to discuss the performances, was quite complimentary on their skills, although he observed that certain rhythmic irregularities in his piece, which derived from American vernacular music, might have been elusive for them. The works by Qin differed starkly from one another except that both were written for traditional Chinese instruments. The first, Prayer Flags in the Wind, was for solo zheng, a zither that Qin treated unconventionally by retuning and bowing. The second was Land & Cloud Shadows, a suite for an ensemble of ruans, a kind of lute or banjo that comes in a full family of sizes. The visual impact of this piece was enhanced by the sylphidically begowned ladies of the Ruan Clan Orchestra of the CCOM. The three (of six) movements performed on this program were richly varied in sonorities and affect, and the musical style largely eschewed the avant-gardism of Prayer Flags.
The two works by Guo, who is the dean of composition at CCOM, also exploited the sonic possibilities of traditional Chinese instruments, in this case wind and percussion. The first of these, A Bamboo-Twig Song for three players (fielding at least five instruments) on the bamboo transverse flute, is based on a traditional melody from the Tang dynasty. In three movements variously pent atomic, octatonic and dodecaphonic, it called for and received the highest level of virtuosity from flutists Wang Junkan, Tu Huabing, and Zhu Xian. The Western composers and musicians were agog over both the piece and its performance. The second Guo work, Xi, was originally for three players, but the composer arranged it here for five trios of percussionists on Chinese cymbals and bells. Like the Qin ruan work, this was a six-movement suite of which two were performed.
The concert closed with the Andriessen work, in which the musical ideas derived from jazz and rock, and Zavalloni, whose fame is in Baroque and modern opera, performed with a microphone, though she plainly didn’t need to for projection. The audience reaction was enthusiastic.
We attended a couple of other festival concerts, including a program by the Kansas City-based new Ear Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. This program, given in the Recital Hall of the CCOM, had no Chinese works but attracted a full house of CCOM students distracted from their end-of-year recitals to check out music mostly by Midwestern and California-based composers Robert Pherico (the ensemble’s pianist), Ingrid Stolzel, Evan Chambers, Mara Gibson, William Lackey, Nickholas Omaccioli, and Paul Rudy.
The Dinosaur Annex concert on May 22 took place at CCOM’s concert hall — a remarkable modern hall inside a traditional Chinese building — and featured works by John Harbison, Scott Wheeler, Yu-Hui Chang (former and current Dinosaur artistic directors, respectively), Beijing native Fay (Feinan) Wang, and two works, by Xu Shuya and Qu Xiaosong, commissioned by the festival. The touring Dinosaur roster comprised violinist Gabriela Diaz, cellist Michael Curry, flutist and co-artistic director Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, clarinetist Katherine Matasy, pianist Donald Berman, and guest percussionist Christopher Froh.
The concert did double duty as the annual Alexander Tcherepnin Memorial Concert, in honor of that Russian composer who settled for 12 years in China and instituted the first composers’ competition there. Berman began the program with a short work of Tcherepnin’s.
The three other Western works displayed a variety of cultural crosscurrents. Wheeler’s Piano Trio No. 4, Granite Coast, was commissioned by Shalin Liu and premiered at the Rockport Music Festival she has substantially underwritten. The title and much of the trio’s musical imagery (down to the seagulls’ cries at the end) refer to Rockport, but there are also Chinese tunes in it. Chang, a Taiwanese native, let very little of that consciously inform her Binge Delerium for solo percussion, thereby contrasting with the Guo percussion work. Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing is so culturally specific in the tunes it uses (e. g. Amazing Grace, Aura Lee a/k/a Love Me Tender, St. Louis Blues, Anniversary Song a/k/a Happy Birthday) that the changes he rings on them appeared to slide right by the Chinese audience.
The three Chinese pieces continued the strong festival-wide trend of cultural cross-fertilization. Xu’s In Nomine III was based on a mass by John Taverner with Chinese traditional elements worked in, in a modernist harmonic and structural matrix. Qu’s work, a strikingly spare and simple recitation of a single theme varying only in coloration, seems deceptively Asian until one realizes that the tune is medieval European. It also contains something of a manifesto, in that the players stage whisper a Chinese phrase at the end that means “farewell, avant-garde.” Anecdote: Chang rehearsed the players in saying these lines, and some of the Chinese audience noted with some amusement that they came out in a Taiwanese accent. The Wang piece that closed the program, Dancing Antelope on the Holy Mountain, drank from a Western neo-tonal well with a very Asian sensibility in its largely gentle and evocative presentation.
These summaries are offered as a sampler from the festival, which continued until May 25. Our third and final installment will be something different, an interview with an American musician who has lived and worked as a member of the NCPA orchestra for the past two years.