The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts’ “Four Winds, Music Dialogue and Cooperation (Series 5)” half-packed Jordan Hall yesterday. As one of few Americans of European descent in the audience among a vast majority of Chinese, I wondered if our listening experiences might be the same or different. (For many years I have been teaching Universe of Music, a course that begins with pulsars and singing sands and continues on with instruments and music-making from around the world.)
Bravos accented animated handclapping for Chinese Rhapsody No. 2 that pronounced a kind of Debussy-Liszt underpinning to melody spoken in pentatonic language—that five-tone scale found among diverse cultures. All in all, at concert’s end, “Four Winds” prompted rounds of applause for both performers and the program itself of nearly two and a half worthwhile hours.
With such splendor on stage from every performer to an ever so fascinating range of traditional Chinese instruments mingling with the traditional European string quartet, the eye was as fulfilled as the ear. One may wish to learn that more recent dialogues among ethnomusicologists have asserted the “universality” of music through various arguments all stemming from a concept that music is direct expression.
To open, a Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra of 11 performers all on Chinese instruments rendered Jackdaws play in the cold water, immediately affirming music’s power of speaking directly.
Dignity was everywhere on Jordan’s stage, both sight- and sound-wise. We read: “The tune portrays a beautiful scene in nature—a group of birds playing joyfully in the icy water on a cold day. It is a metaphor of the optimism people have when facing challenges in life.” This was heard by way of that flowing tune slowly unfolding naturally through all the instruments. Then, a pickup in the tempo turned feeling to brightness spinning to near dizzying effect. No musical crossovers, rather wondrous human esprit from halfway across the planet.
Wang Hua wove his bamboo flute, the xiao, with sensitive silk and satin tones. He led the accompanying Borromeo String Quartet with pianist Meng-Chieh Liu in With the lilies, the song, and the stars by American composer David Ludwig. Richly sonorous, it evoked shadows of Debussy and Stravinsky, even Bernard Hermann (Psycho score) infiltrated this score. The composer’s “imagining of the dreams and fantasies of the people of the Paleolithic era” was exquisitely reproduced by players, leaving us wanting some choreography.
A brand new See Without Looking from the California-based Daniel Walker breathed Western-leaning repetition into a mass of plucked Chinese string soundings. There is much intelligence in this, a world premiere, given its surfaces often going to pulsations aimed at the body. Curiously, and most gratifyingly, those body beats microscopically reflected in the rapidly plucked tremolos. The vividly Lao-Tzu motivated work easily commanded full attention until an unexpected fifth movement, appearing as an epilogue, surprised after a vivacious “finale.” Taking modest bows, the composer and performers rightfully basked in the glow together they artfully fashioned.
And as throughout the program, Shen Cheng on huqin, or Chinese fiddle, was master of that instrument, voicing a pureness reaching all the way to the soul.
Another new work, though hardly sounding like one, The Bright March, by Xiaogang Ye, “is full of optimism and passion.” It certainly was all that. Strong patriotic stirrings came from the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments coupled with the grand piano. Simple Western harmony underpinning a pentatonic melody intensified through frequent dramatically placed modulations summoning the high spirits of nationalism. Under the clear-cut direction of Shun Liu, emotions ran deep as the Chinese Orchestra ecstatically swept through Ye’s score, a demeanor of respect always evident.
The Prelude and the Dance for solo piano also known as the Chinese Rhapsody No. 2 by Anlun Huang dates from 1974, a time coming toward the end of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Meng-Chieh Liu magnificently captured the youthful extravaganza from the delicately shaded impressionistic opening to the virtuosic crashing close. This dialogue and cooperation of east and west was the most obvious on the program.
Hang Zou, one of the musical “New Generation,” scored Ten Changes and Five Variables for Chinese ensemble and string quartet. The title refers to the ever-changing nature of things. The “mixture of solos and ensemble playing, and the coloristic distance between Chinese and Western instruments [are] reminiscent of the ancient concept of Yin and Yang.” Music Director Shun Liu conducted the orchestra and string quartet, 14 performers in all, with the right precision and grasp of the dramatic.
As with other works, the gradual acceleration of rhythm, like that of a dropped tennis ball bouncing closer and closer to the ground, set this piece in motion. An ostinato and a crescendo looked to the West. The second movement reminded of Beijing Opera with its “noisy” percussion (I got to know this music hearing it every Sunday coming through the ceiling of my apartment, which was below that of my Chinese landlord). Dark, mysterious harmonies hovered in the third movement, and there was foot stomping in the fourth.
The fifth whispered in, a faint melody blossoming into singing from the orchestra, to close a truly enlightening and satisfying evening. This surely was discourse and cooperation elevated through music.
You may also want to read Lee Eiseman’s enjoyable and informative article, “For This Crowd, Crossing Over Not Forbidden.”
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net