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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Coming Full Circle

So you think Carnegie Hall’s Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival is over in New York? Not so fast. A number of China-themed gallery exhibitions in Chelsea will remain on view as late as mid-January 2010; in addition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Silk and Bamboo: Music and Art of China, a primarily archaeological look at China’s ancient music, runs through February 7.

At Tuesday night’s closing performance, Clive Gillinson hinted that Carnegie Hall and China will be drawn closer together after Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. For audiences in China, the future starts later this month.

On November 21, television audiences in Shanghai will get a taste of Carnegie Hall—and of last year’s festival—as Leonard Bernstein: The Best of all Possible Worlds makes its Chinese broadcast debut as the weekly featured concert on Shanghai Oriental Television’s arts channel. The gala performance, which opened Carnegie Hall’s season last year, features Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony, along with guest artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Thomas Hampson, and Dawn Upshaw.

I discovered this timely coincidence when I called Xie Lixin, the program director for Shanghai’s arts channel, and told him about the strong showing the Shanghai Symphony—his hometown band—made at the festival’s closing night. Although Xie was sorry he couldn’t be in New York, he was very much looking forward to the broadcast. “Bernstein was an iconic figure in popularizing classical music,” he said. “Most people in China know him only as a conductor; few know about his multifaceted career.” Unlike most broadcasts in this time slot, he added, the Bernstein program also features interviews and extra footage from within Carnegie Hall.

“Chinese people know about two great concert halls in the world: Vienna’s Musikverein, and Carnegie Hall,” he added. “It is not so easy for any of us to see inside Carnegie Hall.”

Posted by Ken Smith

The Chinese Angle

Anybody who’s tripped over a tripod trying to get to their seats at Carnegie Hall (or even at neighborhood and partner venues around the city) probably wonders where all those cameras are from. Ever since the lanterns went up and the lions danced through the lobby, there has been a significant increase in the amount of Chinese-language media at Carnegie Hall.

One particular Chinese-language channel, Sinovision, has included Carnegie Hall as a nightly staple in its regular news coverage for the past three weeks, from lively footage of the opening lion dance and features on the Quanzhou marionettes, to the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and interviews with featured artists in the festival. Most of these clips are archived and available to anyone with open access to the internet.

For a brief sampling (of just one channel, mind you), here’s local Chinese coverage of the festival opening, the Zankel Hall photo exhibition, an interview with Wu Man, the HKCO’s Neighborhood Concert at Flushing Town Hall, interviews with Tan Dun and Chen Qigang, and an excerpt from an interview with Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, with Chinese subtitles.

Posted by Ken Smith

11/10 Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

I spent my childhood in Shanghai, so when I heard that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall, I looked forward to welcoming an “old friend” from my home city. The program, led by conductor Long Yu, consisted of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Lang Lang as soloist, and Chen Qigang’s 2001 composition Iris dévoilée.

Chen Qigang’s Iris dévoilée portrays the various traits, facets, and moods of Woman as an archetype. Written for full orchestra, it combines both western and eastern musical elements using a soprano, a Peking Opera soprano, and traditional Chinese instruments. The work is distinctive in its exploration of light coloration, silken textures, suspended harmonies, and delicate, melodious threads. Particularly striking was a moment during which the two sopranos’ sustained notes blended together in disparate, contrasting vocal tones. Those few seconds were quite special. Overall, it was very satisfying to hear how the quality of playing by this fine orchestra has developed over the years.

11/10 Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

View a slide show from the November 10, 2009, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra concert.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

Angel Lam's Family Affair

As Saturday’s standing ovation petered out, the intermission crush began: Crowds of well-wishers poured backstage and crammed into an elevator alongside Wednesday night’s marimba. Several floors above, they lined the hallway where composer Angel Lam waited alongside her piece’s soloist, Yo-Yo Ma.

Lam’s mother, dressed in a traditional Chinese outfit like her daughter, scanned the bustling crowd with a look of calm content. Strongly represented in the mob was that most ancient of Chinese ideas: the family clan, or jiāzú. “Oh, we have aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters—probably about 15 or 20 people total, coming in from California and Hong Kong.” And those were just the blood relatives. Composer-comrades like Huang Ruo, Bright Sheng, and Chen Qigang lined the halls, as did a diverse cast of characters ranging from singer Shen Yang to a smiling Steve Orlins, President of the National Committee on United States–China Relations.

Eventually the stampede subsided and ushers shooed the fans back to their seats, but not before Lam and Ma had had their fill of congratulations. They smiled into the final camera flashes as the intermission-ending bells sounded throughout the Hall.

Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

11/9 New Juilliard Ensemble @ Alice Tully Hall

For my money, the mid-size chamber ensemble is the best and most versatile platform for exhibiting works by modern Chinese composers. It’s large enough to accommodate a healthy roster of Western and Chinese instruments, with lots of places to go in terms of color and volume. But still small enough to keep things loose and improvisatory in the style of traditional Chinese music, most of which had no notation and was played on instruments that are essentially folk handicrafts.

Last night’s Alice Tully show by the New Juilliard Ensemble exhibited six works by six modern Chinese composers: five of mid-1950s vintage, and one born in 1988. The latter was Li Shaosheng, whose Skyline on the Moon was a world premiere composed especially for the ensemble; the rest were well-established composers representing Beijing, Shanghai, and China’s interior. All the pieces shared in common a chamber-orchestra format, and a rough similarity in style that ranged between a carefree Bartók, a distracted Stravinsky, Copland-Bernstein, and a little rock n’ roll. But the diversity within these broad parameters was impressive and seductive—like, at the risk of veering into cliché, China herself. In Guo Wenjing’s Concertino, the solo cello was the star; in Zhu Jian’er’s symphony, the extremely versatile dizi flute. Rumbles from the bass drum opened and closed young Li’s well-received and highly scenic piece, while his teacher Ye Xiaogang used strings and angular rhythms to do justice to the title of his Nine Horses. The rock- and writing-inclined Liu Sola offered one of her rare returns to classical music with In-Corporeal I (pop beats, drumset, and all), and Jia Daqun’s densely colorful Three Images from Ink and Wash Painting tried with good success to adapt to music styles of Chinese calligraphy.

The program’s strongly visual theme didn’t go amiss, either: In a time when much of modern music can feel aggressively antisocial and abstract, sometimes it’s nice to sit back with fellow concertgoers and take in the views.

Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

11/8 The Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble @ The Joyce Theater

The experience of seeing the Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble at the Joyce Theater on Sunday evening was like peering through a time portal into the China of nearly 2,000 years ago.

The work presented on Sunday, The Feast of Han Xizai, was inspired by a painting of the same name dating from the Tang dynasty and displayed in the National Museum of Beijing. The famous painting depicts many contemporary details about art, fashion, music, and dance, all of which played a part of aristocratic life during the Tang dynasty.

The Feast of Han Xizai is presented as a series of six scenes. The work’s plot concerns an incident at a party involving a guest and a concubine. The incident arouses the anger of Han Xizai, the host of the party and a powerful statesman. Some of the scenes contain no plot development, but demonstrate intricate dance ensembles, solo instrumental and vocal performances, or experiences such as flower arranging or an exquisite tea ceremony.

Iris dévoilée unveiled

A brief word about Iris dévoilée: Its orchestration includes female singers (both bel canto and Peking opera styles) and traditional Chinese instruments (erhu, pipa, and zheng). In nine movements, the piece runs through various states of womanhood from “Chaste” to “Hysterical.”

This week I finally had a brief word about the piece with Chen Qigang himself. Its unusual form was partly an extension of his earlier piece, The Five Elements, an orchestral suite of five short movements that marked the first time he’d attempted such abrupt changes in mood. In content, Iris owes much to Chen’s Raise the Red Lantern ballet for director Zhang Yimou and the National Ballet of China, which had incorporated elements of Peking opera in the score. “We had worked on that piece for more than a year,” Chen says. “There were many ideas we never used.”

More important than specific musical sources, though, was the collaborative sense that the ballet had instilled. Working with a director, choreographer, and dancers as well as musicians had brought home the idea of conveying multiple viewpoints in a single piece.

“This essentially represents the nine different ways I’ve observed women presenting themselves,” Chen explains. “Right up to its publication, I was facing the dilemma of whether or not the subject matter was appropriate. There hasn’t been anything like this before in Chinese music.”

In France, where Chen has lived since 1984, this was hardly a problem. Most people who heard about the piece found the Chinese elements exotic but the subject matter appealingly universal. But, as Chen had feared, exactly the reverse proved true in China, where the people found the piece strangely Western in its openness.

“Many people in China who heard this piece felt uncomfortable,” he said. “When I discussed this piece with students at the Shanghai Conservatory, I got a stern warning from the school authorities: ‘You talk too much about women and romantic love in front of college students.’”

But women, he insists, are intricately connected with men’s lives, beginning with their mothers. “Women have all the qualities of men, but men don’t share all the qualities of women,” he said. “All men need women. Without women, men could do nothing.”

But back to the roots of the piece, does Chen Qigang have an iris? Was there a particular muse at the heart of the piece?

“No,” he says, a little too quickly. “There was no muse. You cannot say there was a muse.” Which, of course, is fooling no one. Unless, like the Greeks, he had several of them.

Posted by Ken Smith

Iris dévoilée veiled

Chen Qigang’s Iris dévoilée, a 40-minute work examining the various faces of womanhood that closes the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival, not only landed the composer a multi-recording relationship with EMI Classics, but has also become a popular showpiece for Chinese orchestras up and down China’s East Coast. When the Guangzhou Symphony needed a Chinese piece to perform on its US tour in 2005, Iris was the work chosen. The piece requires a balanced understanding of Chinese and Western idioms; as with Beethoven or Mahler in the West, I often use it to compare various orchestras in China. The Hong Kong Philharmonic emphasized its French qualities; at its Chinese premiere, with the Beijing-based China Philharmonic, it was unambiguously Chinese.

That premiere, which took place at the 2002 Beijing Music Festival at an all-Chen concert conducted by Muhai Tang (who had premiered and recorded Iris in Paris a year earlier), was also a logistical mess. Some 20 minutes after the scheduled starting time, when the orchestra had still not arrived, a radio presenter came onstage with Chen. After discussing the inspiration for the work, Chen, who normally speaks in flowing paragraphs, began to hesitate. His face quickly turned red.

The festival’s director, Long Yu, then came out. He was clearly apologetic, though I could barely make out a word he said. The audience started to leave. On the way out I approached the composer Guo Wenjing, whose English is as halting as my Chinese; Guo explained, “Percussion, uh, no show.”

By 9 PM, the augmented percussion section had fully arrived, and, well after 10 PM, Iris finally received its China premiere. It remains among the most memorable symphonic performances I’ve heard in Asia.

And it made me think that I really had to ask Chen more about this piece, preferably when he wasn’t standing in front of 2,000 people.

Posted by Ken Smith

Ancient Dance, Modern Anthem

Fashionably dressed in a black velvet jacket, Li Shaosheng did not look out of place beneath Joyce Theater’s shining marquee last night. In town for tonight’s premiere of his latest piece, he was taking some time off from rehearsal to see another, older side of the Carnegie Festival.

On the stage inside, the Taiwanese Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble enacted two hours of historically-inflected dances and sung drama based around the styles of the Han and Tang dynasties. The music and dancers repeated patterns, subtly changing each time. Li, who studies composition at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, seemed to appreciate the performance despite his extenuating circumstances: jet-lag, and a daylong rehearsal for his big premiere. “It’s quite traditional,” said a visibly fatigued Li. Many modern composition students on the mainland today don’t get an in-depth education in traditional musical styles; “we all know that Taiwan has preserved its culture very well,” added Li. Everything was restrained, subtle, with nuances brought out through endless repetitions with slight differences.

Li’s piece tonight will be different: “It’s an anthem, about 15 minutes,” he explained on the 1 train back up to Juilliard, where he’s staying in the dorms. “They commissioned it in February, and I wrote it in August”—not quite as long and storied as the two-millennia history behind the nanguan music he had just seen, but something to think about when you see the New Juilliard Ensemble show tonight.

Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

Cell Division

I think I’ve finally learned that you really can’t be everywhere at once. I can’t be in New York and Asia; composer Liu Sola can’t be at rehearsals for the New Juilliard Ensemble’s program tonight at Alice Tully Hall and the Orange County Museum of Art, where she was scheduled to speak as part of the West Coast offerings in Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. But at least there’s always Skype.

Thanks to the miracle of VoIP, I was able to not only track down our elusive composer, but also find out what she talked about at the panel discussion Designing China, which was held last Thursday in conjunction with the California Humanities Research Institute. “I was on the panel with the artist Liu Dan,” she said. “My subject was sound.”

For her, the art of composition is broken down not into themes and motifs, but into shapes and cells. “How I hear the sound is the shape,” she explains. “The cells are the aesthetic. They make the music come alive.”

Looking at Mr. Liu’s art, for example—which often uses stones and rocks as its subject matter—Ms. Liu could already hear a musical shape. After that, she just needs to figure out the cells to fill those shapes.

So is this a strategy to keep in mind while listening to all new Chinese music?

“This is not just simply how I write music,” she says. “You can trace other people’s inspiration backwards. I can even trace free jazz, the way players like Ornette Coleman shape their music.”

How is a cell, then, different from a motif or theme?

“With motifs, you always look forward to development,” she explains. “Cells are there to make their own statement. They are very individual, and they can change very fast. That to me is much more exciting than a motif.”

Posted by Ken Smith

11/7 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Last night, during the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s performance,
there was a playful silkworm weaving a set of “threads” in my imagination. It was making wonderful connections in my thoughts between Angel Lam’s Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, and (surprisingly) my own distant past in China.

Angel Lam’s Awakening from a Disappearing Garden is a cello concerto with narration that depicts a dream sequence occurring between 1953 and 2007. The sequence revolves around the narrator’s character, Lao Wu (Number Five). Wearing a long, white, Chinese-style dress, the narrator (composer Angel Lam), could have been the character she was describing in the 1953 episode. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello sonorities captured the evocative mood, transporting me to remote worlds with a backdrop of musical references to the present (textured string sonorities) and the past (traditional Chinese opera gongs and temple bells).

The second work of the evening, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the fanciful story of a Chinese emperor and a mythical nightingale, whose power restores life to the dying Emperor. In this concert version of Stravinsky’s opera, a few small props and the singer’s imaginative choreography caused my mind’s eye to superimpose the missing details traditionally provided by stage settings.

Now, back to the little silkworm that was weaving connections to my own experiences in China:

While listening to Lam’s words about the woman in the 1950s, who is then transported to 2007, my own deep memories began to surface. When I was a little girl in the 1960s, I performed on the piano for Mao Zedong. It was a cloudy day at China’s Youth Palace in Shanghai, and being so young, I certainly didn’t understand the significance of having such an audience! In Stravinsky’s opera, the nightingale makes the Emperor unexpectedly feel something very tender with its song. Perhaps I was not unlike the nightingale.

Remembering a recent visit to China, I also feel connected to Lam’s character, Number Five, in her more current, modern world. Indeed, living in the fast-paced world of business and technology, which I experience here every day, is in complete contrast with my former life in Shanghai. Looking back now, that childhood memory of playing for Mao seems like a dream. But it really did happen. In a brief instant, the past seems like the present.

Angel Lam’s and Stravinsky’s works were all about distant dreams and myths, but last night they were also and evocation of at least one reality—my own.

Posted by Yee Ping Wu, co-founder of Knoa Software and a graduate of The Juilliard School

11/7 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

View a slide show from the November 7, 2009, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

11/6 The Evolving Cultural Identity of Chinese American Artists @ Museum of Chinese in America

Even today, said the panelists, “Do you speak English?” is a question sometimes directed at Americans who appear phenotypically Asian. But not last night: With a loquacious and erudite command of English that outstripped their Chinese, three accomplished Chinese Americans tackled the thorny issue of identity.

Even émigré Bright Sheng, born and raised in China, confessed: “After so long in America, I found my Chinese was slipping and English getting better. For a time, I couldn’t speak either language well.” Playwright David Henry Hwang and writer Jeff Yang, both American-born, seemed to relish their American-ness. “For so long, we were trying to prove that we were more American than Chinese,” said Yang. Hwang chimed in: “but now that China is rising, we want to identify more with that.”

The setting couldn’t have been more fitting for this wide-ranging discussion of Chinese American identity: the brand-new Centre Street. home of the Museum of Chinese in America. Facing a diverse crowd, the three mused on how much things have changed. “In the schoolyard, “Chinese’ used to be a bad thing,” recalled Yang. “‘Chinese American’ wasn’t a well-developed idea.” “But now, they are studying us in college courses!” said Hwang with more than a hint of amazement. “In the past 30 years,” he continued, “the changes have been huge. Who could have imagined that a Chinese American writer [Amy Tan] would be a household name?”

Audience questions focused on the notion of Asian versus Chinese American, the possibility of future rivalry with China, and the topic—still taboo in conservative strains of Chinese culture—of mental disability. One gentleman whose look and manner put him one “fugghedaboudit” away from a Chinese Tony Soprano, said what many were thinking: “Talk to me over the phone, you’d never know I looked Chinese.”

Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

Scarfing up Culture

I’m still in Hong Kong, but I can still feel Carnegie Hall in the air. That’s mostly because I passed by Shanghai Tang last night, where Lang Lang’s signature black-and-fuchsia piano-print scarf has been carrying word of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices back to Asia. (It retails here for HK$980, by the way—about US$125, compared to US$150 in New York. The Chinese love their bargains.)

The idea of a classical musician teaming up with an international fashion brand might still seem novel in the West, but it falls squarely within the modern Asian concept of holistic shopping. New York’s Time Warner Center—with its commercial offices, destination restaurants, high-end retail stores, a luxury hotel, and multiple performance spaces—is pretty much Hong Kong’s idea of perfection.

Even more prominent than Lang Lang’s scarf display in Shanghai Tang’s flagship store in Central is the exhibit at the company’s new boutique at 1881 Heritage, where the pianist’s famous scarf drapes over a copy of his autobiography and his new recording of Russian piano trios, resembling a miniature shrine including everything but the incense.

That location, a one-time Marine Police Quarters and now a hotel-restaurant-retail space, appropriately faces the harbor-front Hong Kong Cultural Centre, which is where Lang Lang is most likely to be found when he’s in town. Lately, he’s here more frequently: In November 2006, the pianist became a Hong Kong resident under the Immigration Department’s quality migrant admission program, which has allowed notably talented mainlanders (including fellow Chinese pianist Yundi Li and Olympic gold medalist Fu Mingxia) to settle in Hong Kong legally without first securing a job. A Hong Kong passport allows the pianist to keep his Chinese citizenship, while making international travel much easier.

Posted by Ken Smith

A Question of Identity

At some point, someone somewhere is bound to ask the obvious question: Is Angel Lam a young Hong Kong woman who lives in America, or a young American woman who was born in Hong Kong? Having divided her life almost evenly between two cultures, she usually answers "both"—but that will hardly please the identity purists.

As Lam herself admits, her Chinese side has largely steered her artistry. ("I find myself drawn much more to stories from Chinese history than the Boston Tea Party or the American Civil War," she says.) That may partly be the "James Joyce factor," since the novelist claimed he was never more Irish than when he lived in Paris. But Lam, in fact, has such a thorough Hong Kong profile that her life story could be approved by the city's Legislative Council.

The daughter of a small-businessman father and a financier mother, Lam relocated with her family from Hong Kong to southern California after 1989, returning to the territory shortly before the handover to China. After her undergraduate studies at the HK Academy of Performing Arts, the overachiever left to pursue two master's degrees at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory and is currently a doctoral candidate at Peabody and an artist diploma candidate at Yale University.

From where I'm sitting, though—in Ho Man Tin, Kowloon, to be precise, halfway between her father's tropical fish store in Kowloon Tong and her mother's banking firm in the city's Central District—the composer has removed all doubt about which side dominates. When we met for tea last summer in Wan Chai, Lam admitted that she came back to Hong Kong not only to finish composing her piece, but also to have the dress for her Carnegie Hall debut made across the border in Shenzhen, where large numbers of Hong Kong residents regularly seek out bargain goods. My Cantonese mother-in-law would be proud.

Posted by Ken Smith

11/5 Traditional Chinese Music in the 21st Century @ China Institute

Cultural agnosticism was the watchword of the evening as Huang Ruo and Min Xiao-Fen faced a full room at China Institute last night. Fresh off Tuesday’s CD release party at (Le) Poisson Rouge, they explained through words and music how culture in China—a country where tradition weighs more heavily than in most places in the world—adapts to the 21st century in the hands of younger artists. Composer Huang spoke and sang, and explained how he learned much about the diversity within China before going abroad and learning about the world outside. “At Oberlin, I could take music, but also philosophy, computer science; it was great.” Pipa virtuoso Min, who spoke during the conversation’s second half, was no less engaged: She grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when political and cultural orthodoxy was a matter of life and death. The crowd hung on every word as she retold her journey from there to her present-day role as the world’s premiere pipa-jazz crossover artist. Besides Huang’s singing, the audience was treated to audio recordings, Four Fragments for Solo Violin (played by Judy Tang from Huang's FIRE ensemble), and Min’s memorable mash-up of Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and the classic “Night Shanghai.” The finale: Written on the Wind, Huang’s piece for pipa accompanied by a calligraphy-inflected abstract art video. Min sang, but in no recognizable words: “I don’t know German or French,” said Huang, “and I kept going to the opera and relying on the surtitles. Then, I just turned off the surtitles, and tried to guess what the meaning was from the context, the emotion. My guesses were pretty good! So for this piece, I made up a language.” For those of us often left straining to understand the meaning in cross-cultural contexts, a nonsense tongue was the ultimate equalizer.
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

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