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Chinese music in flux

Koerner Hall
01/25/2011 -  
Xiaoyong Chen: Invisible Landscapes – Qian & Yan
Chen Yi: YangKo
Dorothy Chang: Lost and Found
Tan Dun: Ghost Opera

Chai Found Music Workshop (Hui-Kuan Lin, pipa; Pei-Yun Tsai, bamboo flute; Cheng-Ming Huang, erhu; I-Hsien Lin, zheng; Hsiao-Yin Wang, Percussion)
Accordes String Quartet (Stephen Sitarski, violin 1; Carol Lynn Fujino, violin 2; Doug Perry, viola; David Hetherington, cello)
Brian Baty (double bass), John Wong (percussion), Leslie Newman (flute), Gregory Oh (piano), Michele Verheul (clarinet/bass clarinet), Joseph Petric (accordion), Les Dala (conductor)

Tan Dun (© Nana Watanabe)

Dynamic presenter of new music Soundstreams frequently focuses on music from one country and this program concentrated on China (sort of). The focus was actually more on parallel and converging development in both Chinese and western music. Western composers have been using elements inspired by or borrowed from Asian music for quite some time, and this concert revealed a multiplicity of cross-fertilizations.

There were two pieces by Xiaoyong Chen, born in China in 1955, who relocated to Hamburg (where he now teaches) in the 1980s to study under György Ligeti among others. Invisible Landscapes (1998) features the Chinese chêng (or zheng), a zither-like instrument with 21 strings which for this piece have been specifically tuned. Chêng player I-Hsien Lin was accompanied by piano, percussion and an ensemble of six western instruments. The composition is in three parts “and a cadence”. Its program note is very complex in its explanation of the work’s meticulous rhythmic modulations. It was much easier to simply relax and savour its airy evanescence.

His second piece, Qian and Yan, dates from 2008. The title is translated as “Transformation and Evolvement”, and the piece is designed for four Chinese instruments (no percussion) and the members of a western string quartet. The composer’s note poses existential questions about identity and tradition versus diversity. The Chinese instruments aren’t necessarily trying to sound western, nor the string quartet trying to sound Chinese. All eight players explore the composer’s hybrid sound world divided into short, contrasting sections. At the end the music drifts away tentatively.

A startling contrast to Xiaoyang Chen’s works was Chen Yi’s ebullient YangKo (2005) for violinist and two percussionists who also recite percussive words. Without knowing what YangKo means, my single word summation of the work was “hoedown” - and that’s pretty much what it does mean. It is an exuberant group folk dance from Northern China. This single movement is adapted from the second movement of Chen Yi’s Chinese Folk Dance Suite, premiered in Philadelphia.

Chen Yi, born in China in 1953, has lived in the USA for some years, where she teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. While currently visiting as a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, a concert of her music will be presented at the university’s New Music Festival. This all-too-brief sample of her work certainly makes me want to hear more.

Dorothy Chang’s Lost and Found, commissioned by Soundstreams, was a world premiere. Born in the USA in 1970, she now teaches at the University of British Columbia. Her notes explains how this piece combines elements from her own fragmented diasporic musical culture plus western content. All five members of the Chai Found Music Workshop were involved, plus the pianist and six western instrumentalists. It is in five sections: “Folk Song”, which to me evoked fast birdsong; “Artifacts”, featuring tiny snippets; “Two Gardens”, a reverie echoing in part the enchanted garden of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye; “Emergence”, featuring the piano and lots of percussion, reminding one of Messiaen; and “In Silent Rain”, very evocative, with lazy glissando effects.

Vancouver conductor Les Dala led a careful, thoughtful performance of this, as he did with the two Xiaoying Chen pieces.

The first half of the program ended with a brief impromptu performance by the Chai Found Music Workshop players, who hail from Taiwan, of a traditional piece. It’s title was not announced, which was no matter as this gave us a chance to get acquainted with the “core sound” of the ensemble in contrast to the rest of the program.

The second half of the program featured the evening’s marquee event, Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, premiered in Beijing in 1994. (Incidentally, Soundstreams has performed this piece before.) It isn’t really an opera but, although it is performed by just five players (a string quartet plus a pipa - or Chinese lute - player), it resembles an opera more than one might think. The quartet players also have to handle stones, paper, water and metal. The water gong, for example, is used: it is a small gong that in this piece has a bow scraped along its edge and then it is dipped in water, which modulates the resonance. The players, all of whom also vocalize at times, are distributed in various parts of the stage and there are evocative scenic elements, such as illuminated bowls of water and a paper screen.

What it evokes is a traditional Chinese funeral ritual designed to accompany the deceased into the afterlife or “white happiness”. It begins and ends with a quote from the Prelude in C-sharp minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, and contains a quote from the Chinese folk song, Little Cabbage. It’s overall theme can be said to be convergence and cross-cultural referencing that sums up the entire intriguing concert.

Michael Johnson



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