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Yazhi Guo’s Formidable Reach


The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts’s “Desert River” 大漠長河 mixed Chinese instruments with the piano. An interested turnout Saturday evening at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall discerned the ethnic combinations of Yazhi Guo 郭雅志, suona 嗩吶 and guanzi 管子; Chi Wei Lo 駱奇偉, classical pianist/improviser; and Leo Blanco, jazz pianist/composer. Held in esteem in his country, Guo should find such recognition and honor far beyond.

Rondo 回旋曲 (1937) by Ma Sicong 馬思聰 (suona and piano arr. Yazhi Guo 郭雅志 injected stunning brightness with a surprising immediacy, only to turn to nostalgic sweetness looking toward east and west, a kind of drama naturally, even happily common to both. The double-reed horn, tuned outside of its traditional ways by Guo’s engineering ingenuity, accommodated a greater range of pitches allowing a rare contemporary expression.

Chinese Ancient Dances for suona and piano 中國古代舞曲 (2004/2022) by Chen Yi 陳怡 (suona version world premiere) began with Ox Tail Dance 牛尾舞. Guo’s convincing cattle calls alternated with Lo’s hefty animalistic answers. Pure fun.  Modernisms of Guo and Lo further created the picturesque, absolutely refreshing to today’s ear. For Hu Xuan Dance 胡旋舞, the suona and piano duo played brilliantly, even wildly, a crowd-pleaser, but following the Ox, somewhat disappointing in meaning.

A fairly big outing, hardly adventurous, always luxurious, Chi Wei Lo’s Improvisation on a Theme of “Moonlight Over Spring River” 春江花月夜 pleased. His pianism, always alert and colorful, roamed the black keys of the instrument attaining a Chinese loveliness and grandeur reminiscent of musicien français Claude Debussy, his own esthetic reaching beyond the west toward the east’s pentatonic musical alphabet.

As with Guo’s altered instrument, the piano went outside its keyboard and directly into its  strings. The Great Desert and the Yellow River – III 大漠長河 for suona and piano (2011) by Hao-Fu Zhang 張豪夫 decidedly took on a range of manners and spectacular effects. While elusive poetically, Guo and Lo played Hao-Fu Zhang’s instrumental craziness to the hilt screeching, pecking and pounding away. The lyrical asides from Guo’s tonal touches hit home, the overly long piece proceeding anywhere but logically. But, I guess, that’s not what other listeners heard, judging from their enthusiastic reaction.

Because China’s schools, some past decades ago left the long-time art of improvising for other kinds of instruction, Guo, already an established musician, enrolled at Berklee College of Music. There he studied primarily with South American jazz pianist and composer Leo Blanco. The two teamed up offering a set of pieces by Blanco. The first, Poconos took well-traveled ways over agitated rhythmic piano patterns, the suona leaving Chinese ethos heading to South and North America. Yemen and Peru Lando featured the guanzi, described as a double-reed flute (the suona as a double-reed horn). Venezuelan folkish and dancy, Yemen glimpsed sorrowful vibes. For composer Blanco, Peru Lando exhibits the “African diaspora influence in Peru.” Emotionally explosive, the hot duo encouraged a moment of pulsing claps from around Jordan Hall. To finish, Blanco recalled his frenetic up-tempo El Negro y el Blanco for piano solo from 2010.

More improvisation, this time from the Guo-Lo duo, the guanzi and piano warmly colorizing in classical five-tone garb, but then turning more, still more crazy. Guo holding on and on to single note drew a round of applause, Lo followed with crashing keyboard clusters. The concert ended with Dance of the Golden Snake 金蛇狂舞 for suona and piano Chinese traditional, arr. Yazhi Guo 郭 leaving one to wonder about improvisation—athleticism, instrumental display, spectacle?

The concert should be available on the Foundation’s website in a couple of weeks.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair 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).

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