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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

Putting Herself in the Picture

Looking at the liner notes to Angel Lam's Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain on the Silk Road Ensemble's new collection Off the Map, you soon get the sense that there's much more to her piece than the music. There is, in fact, an elaborate backstory—a short poetic piece of fiction that at times seems as if it wants to waft off the page and into the actual performance.

In Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, the composer's written words do just that. When Lam's new piece comes to Carnegie Hall this Saturday night with Yo-Yo Ma and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Lam herself will be narrating on stage.

"I took a taxi," her piece begins. "It wouldn't take long to reach this luxurious mansion, where I have been invited for a party. A calendar on the dashboard showed in bright, red letters, May 10th, 1953." The second movement opens on September 9, 2007: "I was not in hurry, but the taxi driver was." Two different women, two different generations, two different taxi rides are reconciled in Lam's story.

"Every piece I write has a story behind it," says the composer. Having the confidence to put herself in the middle of it, though, has been a gradual progression. Lam wrote her first narration in a piece titled Symphonic Journal: Ambush from 10 Directions for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in 2005. Two years later, she was encouraged to record her own narration for Midnight Run, a theater-dance piece directed by Martha Clarke, who later integrated into the performance a video of Lam reading the poem.

Posted by Ken Smith

11/4 Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

The gentleman standing in the refreshments line at intermission, pontificating loudly à laAnnie Hall," may stand corrected. The Stravinsky was not a richly compelling and daringly visionary break from the composer's canon that is unlike any other Stravinsky piece you've ever heard. In fact, the material in Chant du rossignol predates his most famous works. Moreover, clearly audible within is an early sketchpad for many of his later ballets, notwithstanding the shine and dazzle of unusual, "Oriental"-sounding tonalities.

What was somewhat novel was the juxtaposition: sandwiching two modern Chinese pieces between two works of chinoiserie. Chant du rossignol and Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite both hail from an era when the West's limited understanding of Chinese music came through interpretation by Western masters. Even those composers who made some use of actual Chinese tunes and scales—like the famous Turandot theme based on the traditional "Jasmine Flower" melody—still ended up with Chinese caricatures embedded in often-great works of music.

How things have changed: Last night's other pieces were from Chinese masters, stars from China's first generation of modern composers to have ample life experience at home and in the West. Both pieces set an unusual solo instrument against rich orchestral textures, and both had tersely poetic Chinese names belied by their English titles: Bright Sheng's Colors of Crimson condenses down to the color-word Jiàng, while the grand-sounding Water Concerto, by Tan Dun, is two syllables, Shuĭyuè, "water music." The solos, both performed by Colin Currie, were likewise pure and simple but deeply felt. For Tan's piece twanging, splashing, bubbling water; for Sheng's, a marimba that floated over the orchestra parts.

Bright Sheng and Tan Dun looked on from the audience as David Robertson conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Each approached the stage for bows after their pieces, and each was intercepted by a beaming Robertson who dashed down to administer hugs before they could even get up the parquet stairs. It was just as well that Bartók and Stravinsky couldn't make it last night; the old masters were good, but their Chinese counterparts stole the show.

Panel Discussion

View a slide show from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall on November 4, 2009.

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

"Guanxi" is not a province

The first word anyone working in China should learn is guanxi, which refers to a system of connections and obligations that weaves inextricably throughout Chinese culture. For a lesson in guanxi and its practical application in music programming, consider Joel Sachs, whose New Juilliard Ensemble program on Monday, November 9, at Alice Tully Hall—part of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices—offers a concise overview of contemporary music by composers currently working in China.

"I'd known Chou Wen-chung for a long time, so I knew the usual suspects," says Sachs, referring to a Columbia University professor who recruited a number of composers—including Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long—from China's Central Conservatory. Sachs's introduction to composers still living in China came in 1996 through a phone call from the Asian Cultural Council. "They asked if I'd like to meet a Chinese composer they'd brought to New York," he recalls. As a result, Jia Daqun's Intonation was included on the NJE's opening program.

Two years later, Sachs got another phone call from the ACC, this time recommending the composer Guo Wenjing. "We gave the US premiere of Guo's Inscription on Bone, which has some very distinctive vocal requirements," he says. "Guo strongly recommended a certain young singer who'd just moved to New York from London. Her name was Liu Sola." Guo's Concertino and Liu's In Corporeal 1 appeared soon afterward on NJE programs.

Sachs's guanxi continued to pay dividends when Jia, whose daughter was attending school in the US, was looking for a way to return. Through the renewed graces of the ACC and the NJE, Jia returned to complete his Three Images from Ink and Wash Painting.

The relationship with Ye Xiaogang, another Class of 1978 composer, was more complicated, Sachs says. Ye had invited Sachs's professional ensemble Continuum to appear at the Central Conservatory's new-music festival in spring 2009, and even offered to write a new piece. But Continuum's trip to China was cancelled because of a flu outbreak, and Ye's commission was delayed due to his administrative duties both at the conservatory, where he is now vice-president, and the National Party Congress, of which he is a member.

As a result, Sachs—and US audiences—will now get their introduction to Li Shaosheng, a junior at the Central Conservatory (and a student of Ye's) whose Skyline on the Moon was commissioned by Juilliard for Carnegie Hall's China festival.

Posted by Ken Smith

Chinese or American?

Two months since reopening in its new Maya Lin–designed space, the Museum of Chinese in America has made no secret of its ambitions to become the national focal point for Chinese immigration and its impact on American society. That means not only sifting through history with a curator's eye, says playwright and museum trustee David Henry Hwang, but also examining the changing complexities of how US-China relations affect Chinese Americans today.

In Friday's panel The Evolving Cultural Identity of Chinese American Artists, held in conjunction with Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, Hwang will gather composer-conductor Bright Sheng and San Francisco Chronicle "Asian pop" columnist Jeff Yang to share their perspectives.

"The Chinese American identity has become more international," says Hwang. "The movement started out saying, 'We're American, not Chinese.' We wanted to be treated as Americans, and didn't want much to do with China proper in the 1980s. That's now changed, and many more people go back and forth freely between both."

Shanghai-born Sheng, who came to the US in the 1980s, has his own perspective. "I was very angry about the Cultural Revolution and what it did to China. At the same time, I'd selfishly left the motherland behind me in search of a better life," he says. "As I began making headway here, China also began picking up. This made it more complicated: I feel happy for China's rise, even though I had no part in it."

Hwang and Sheng, whose 1997 opera The Silver River was an exploration of cross-cultural Chinese identity, have begun to re-examine that dynamic today. Shifting cultural identities has also been a frequent topic for New York–based Yang.

"Jeff and I have talked about the fact that lots of things that were negative when we were growing up have now become positive," says Hwang. "Obviously, our well-being depends on the relationship between the US and China. But what does it mean when we were trying to disassociate ourselves from China when it was poor and powerless, yet claim that we're Chinese when China is on the rise? Where's the line between personal identity and opportunism?"

Posted by Ken Smith

Listening to Angel Lam

While I'm on a CD kick, I thought I'd mention another composer coming up on the Carnegie Hall festival schedule. Angel Lam's piece Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain has finally been released on a commercial recording.

Another of Lam's works, Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, which will be performed at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night with Yo-Yo Ma and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is actually the composer's third Carnegie Hall commission. Her second, Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain, was initiated in conjunction with Ma's Silk Road Project. Until now, one could only listen to the piece in part on Carnegie Hall's website or in its entirely on a special edition of the Silk Road Ensemble's Sony release New Impossibilities, available exclusively through barnesandnoble.com.

Since I didn't get my copy of the disc online, I was happy to hear that a new recording of the piece (with a few of the same musicians) has been included on the Silk Road Ensemble's recent collection Off the Map, on World Village Music. There's definitely a theme here. Each of the US–based composers—including, in addition to Lam, Gabriella Lena Frank, Evan Ziporyn, and Osvaldo Golijov—brings at least two cultures to the table. Happily, Lam (at 31, the most junior of the group) holds her own with her more experienced colleagues, spinning musical lines of lyrical, almost ethereal beauty. The CD will be released in the US on November 10, but the download is already available.

Posted by Ken Smith

11/4 - 8 The Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble @ The Joyce Theater

The Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble

View a slide show from the dress rehearsal of The Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble’s production of “The Feast of the Han Xizai.” Performances take place at The Joyce Theater, from November 4 – 8, 2009.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

Redefining Tradition

Last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge, pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and composer Huang Ruo offered a taste of this Thursday’s China Institute presentation, entitled “Traditional Chinese Music in the 21st Century.” Just in case you didn’t make it down to hear Ms. Min perform Mr. Huang’s Written on the Wind, the third in his Drama Theater series, you can still find the piece on Huang’s new Naxos CD To the Four Corners, which offers several of the Drama Theater pieces as well as his First String Quartet.

I’m in Hong Kong at the moment, which is quite far from (Le) Poisson Rouge but quite close to the home office of Naxos Records, and I can say that Min’s recording of Written on the Wind for pipa and voice—conceived both as a pure composition and a multimedia experience—is quite dramatic even without the visuals. The text, incidentally, is not Chinese. Huang, having sat through his share of vocal recitals in the West where he can’t understand the languages, has made it easier for Westerners to approach Chinese music. His piece is filled with all sorts of vocal nuance and textural color—except that the words are in a language of his own creation. For once, neither Chinese nor Western listeners have an advantage.

Thursday’s talk at the China Institute will cover Huang Ruo’s use of traditional sources in orchestral composition (such as Still/Motion, his recent companion piece to “The Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto), as well as Min’s rather liberal uses of traditional music. The reigning pipa crossover queen will also be performing with her jazz-tinged Blue Pipa Trio on November 8 at the Museum of Chinese in America, and has a much more traditional solo pipa performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 19.

Posted by Ken Smith

Tan Dun: Visual Music

Tan Dun

Of all the events that could possibly feature Tan Dun at Carnegie Hall’s China Festival, you might not expect the composer to be a featured solo visual artist in a Chelsea gallery, but there he was. Or at least his hands were.

Chambers Fine Art, which has worked to introduce Chinese visual artists to American audiences since 2000, inaugurated its new location on 19th Street last week with an exhibition devoted to the composer’s Organic Music. It is a bit of a homecoming for Tan, since it was downtown in the experimental milieu of the late 1980s that his music first started incorporating natural elements like water, paper, and stones. In pieces like Ghost Opera and his subsequent Water Concerto (which the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performs with soloist Colin Currie tonight), the dripping and splashing of water emerges as a full-fledged musical vocabulary with unusual dramatic resonance.

But why at a gallery? Back in 2004, Tan was first invited to assemble an installation of his performance works by artist Cai Guo-Qiang for Taiwan’s Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art. Entitled Visual Music, the exhibition later traveled to the Shanghai Gallery of Art in 2005.

The current exhibition—consisting of a cross-shaped, cross-lit arrangement of transparent water bowls from Tan’s Water Passion After St. Matthew (topped with a video screen of the composer’s hands playing with water) and a room of deconstructed pianos that represent “reconstruction and resurrection”—originated in 2008 at Chambers Fine Art Beijing in conjunction with the premiere of the composer’s Organic Music Tears of Nature at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.

Posted by Ken Smith

A New Era in Shanghai

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

The night before I left for China, I found myself sitting in front of a music journalist I know from Shanghai, so I thought I'd pump her for information about the "new" Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Even before the season's opening night, the 130-year-old orchestra was being touted as entering a significantly new era under its new Music Director Long Yu. My friend, Eva Yu (no relation)—who is Managing Editor of Music Lover magazine—devotes most of her time to international artists, but she said she cleared her schedule to see the symphony's opening concert last month with Lang Lang playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.

Nearly a decade ago, Long Yu made history in China by creating the China Philharmonic Orchestra, partly by luring players from the China National Symphony Orchestra, partly by auditioning extensively abroad. Ever since his Shanghai music directorship was announced, the maestro has been quite upfront about his plans to do the same there.

Earlier this year, the orchestra auditioned both in Germany and in America. This was not only to attract the largest talent base possible, but also to convince young Chinese-born players graduating from Western conservatories that they could have credible employment back home. I'd heard that quite a few new faces were in this season's Shanghai Symphony lineup.

"There were a lot of young faces," Eva confirmed. "Lots of new energy in the playing." For a Western comparison, it was more like the Berliner Philharmoniker than the Vienna Philharmonic, she added, the biggest improvement coming in the sections that have been traditionally weak among orchestras in China. "The brass playing in particular," she said, "was much better than before."

Posted by Ken Smith

Catching Up with Long Yu

You'd think it would be difficult to keep up with someone like Long Yu, who in addition to his new post as Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra also maintains music directorships of the Guangzhou Symphony, the China Philharmonic, and the Beijing Music Festival (where he seemed to be omnipresent, though usually in the background).

Actually, that commuter path—the equivalent of Boston to Washington to Miami and back—is all too common among business people in China today. That point was driven home once again when I ran into a Hong Kong friend in the lobby of Beijing's Poly Theatre.

Michelle Garnaut, the Melbourne-born restaurateur whose flagship M on the Fringe was just rated Time Out's Best Restaurant in Hong Kong, also garnered a piece in the New York Times last weekend for her recently opened Capital M in Beijing. Partly because of her own passion for music, Michelle's restaurants also attract a disproportionate number of musicians. Fringe has practically been a canteen for principal players and guest soloists at the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

In honor of her recent two-city media blitz, Michelle invited me to Capital M for a bite, where we ran into … Long Yu. Our conversation about the opening of the Shanghai Symphony season, as well as recent concerts by the Guangzhou Symphony (she also has a pied-à-terre facing the Xinghai Concert Hall, the orchestra's home) seemed to have summoned the man himself.

Long Yu was still hovering over an after-dinner glass of wine. It was the longest I'd seen him in one place, so of course I had to go over and ask him about the dramatic "new" Shanghai Symphony.

"There aren't so many new faces," he said. "Only about 25." Only later did it sink in that, in an orchestra of 83 musicians, more than a quarter of the personnel was playing together for the first time. "They are all Chinese—well, no. We also have two Russian musicians, playing the tuba and the trumpet."

Posted by Ken Smith

From the Other Side of the World

Don't tell anyone, but I'm back in China. I made sure I was in Beijing last Friday for the closing of the Beijing Music Festival, which became a 30th anniversary celebration for both Isaac Stern's From Mao to Mozart tour as well as the resumption of Sino-American relations.

Murray Lerner's 1980 Oscar-winning documentary still resonates today, although seeing it in China has as much resonance with the current times as seeing a black-and-white Depression-era film in New York. You see it as part of the historic continuum, though you're not always sure how we got to the present day.

As befits their audience and their resources, both the BMF and Carnegie Hall's Ancient Paths, Modern Voices answer that question in separate ways. The BMF led with the players themselves, reuniting seven of the soloists who had originally played for Stern as soloists with the China Philharmonic conducted by the violinist's son, David. The stage was flanked by high-definition video screens; the musicians performed Beethoven's Triple Concerto and a Vivaldi four-violin concerto, often in visual counterpoint with their youthful selves playing for Stern in 1979.

The range of players gathered conveyed the breadth of China's past 30 years in the classical music world. Not only did the evening feature a handful of star soloists (including cellist Jian Wang and violinist Vera Tsu), but also professional chamber musicians (Weigang Li of the Shanghai Quartet) and orchestra players from abroad (Pittsburgh Symphony Assistant Concertmaster Hong-Guang Jia and Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Yun Tang).

Carnegie Hall's festival, on the other hand, fleshes out the history of Sino-US cultural exchange more fully on the screen. In conjunction with The Paley Center for Media, Ancient Paths, Modern Voices leads with a screening of From Mao to Mozart on November 7. The next day features CBS coverage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1979 tour, PBS journalist Bill Moyers's 1983 coverage of Arthur Miller directing the first Chinese production of Death of a Salesman, and a 2008 documentary of dancer-choreographer Jacques D'Amboise directing a cross-cultural dance ensemble, entitled The Other Side of the World.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/30 Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra

View a slide show from the October 30 performance by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

11/2 China Art(s) Today @ Asia Society

China today is blossoming with torrents of energy in many artistic areas, which the world now has the opportunity to see, hear, and touch. On Monday evening, two representatives of China's emerging artistic growth—avant-garde artist Wenda Gu and composer and conductor Tan Dun—appeared at the Asia Society as part of a panel moderated by Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum. Some brief film excerpts were presented by both artists.

During one of the excerpts, Tan Dun commented that 1+1=1, a reference to themes of young and old, past and present, and so on. Tan Dun presented this conundrum—with a sense of playfulness, I thought—as a way of expressing an underlying artistic principle that seems to capture an elusive artful essence. Both Tan Dun and Mr. Gu represent, in a sense, the idea of two separate entities or cultures unifying by striving to achieve or create a new sort of "oneness."

This theme is especially relevant, as many of Wenda Gu's projects involve efforts to construct massive structures made entirely of human hair—a common symbol unifying people of all cultures. Tan Dun's nurturing inspiration is water, another universal symbol. In Tan's works, water is often used as an instrument that accompanies other parts of the orchestra. It strikes me that both artists have a strong affinity with nature and universal symbols that emanate from a period during which China was still isolated from other cultures—which is also the China that I knew. Then, unlike today, there was little material means, food, or technology; people had to rely solely on their ingenuity and resourcefulness to survive. Listening intently to these artists describing their work and inferred struggles, expressed with such fundamental symbols—hair and water—I discovered that their music and art also resonated with something from my own memory, because everything was all very simple and bare. I never could have imagined or believed then that such raw elements could be magically transformed into art forms that could touch so many people around the world.

Panel Discussion

View a slide show from the Panel Discussion: CHINA ART(S) TODAY event at Asia Society on November 2, 2009.

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

11/2 Neighborhood Concert: Haochen Zhang @ Flushing Town Hall

Haochen Zhang, Piano

Stumbling off a flight from Hong Kong, your correspondent was hoping to make a discreet entrance to the Flushing Town Hall for Haochen Zhang's recital. No such luck: the flight may have been early, but this conspicuously non-Chinese, luggage-schlepping blogger still faced a huge, bemused crowd on arrival. Lined up all the way down the hall and around the corner, the overwhelmingly Chinese turnout had waited for an hour already and would wait an hour more.

Their enthusiasm spilled into Zhang's performance of 24 Chopin Preludes, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, and Liszt's Rhapsodie espagnole. In this Chinese immigrant enclave, the packed hall lent the show more of a Peking Opera feel (chatting, kids running up the aisles, occasional cell phone bleeps, overzealous clapping) than there was at Zhang's performance in the Chinese capital two weeks ago. During the Chopin, Zhang almost had to fight off the applause during each pause, keeping his hands dramatically raised to signal that no, the piece was not over yet, before launching into the subsequent prelude. As a symbol of young, spectacular success, they loved him; by the second half, everyone had settled down to really listen to the music, too.

Maybe it wasn't just the venue's location; the recent injury of Taiwanese pitcher-hero Chien-Ming Wang has kept him off the Yankees' lineup and thus out of the World Series, making decisions on the evening's entertainment that much easier for locals. Whatever the reason, non–East Asians were barely in evidence. English-language announcements from Carnegie staff were translated into Mandarin and Cantonese, and one got the feeling that many in the crowd were recent transplants grateful for the interpreter. But no English—or Chinese, or any other language—was needed to appreciate Zhang's performance, which by the end had a restless crowd fully at attention.

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

Postcard from Guangzhou: Pearl River Piano Factory

Sawing, hammering, screaming wheels, and groaning elevators are all par for the course inside any of Guangdong province's thousands of factories. Plinking notes are less common: found only in the Pearl River Piano factory's tuning rooms, where upright pianos get five tunings and grand pianos no less than seven.

Visiting on Friday, I saw imported equipment from Korea, Japan, and Europe, manned by the industrious workers that have made this region famous as the world's factory floor. Some pianos bore the names of well-known European firms founded a century or more before Pearl River itself, with no trace of their Chinese provenance. Elsewhere the brand name was proudly featured: both Lang Lang and Yundi Li have made pilgrimages here, leaving behind signed photos of themselves playing on the signature product. Today, Pearl River makes one out of every four Chinese pianos, and lines of strings and woodwinds to boot.

For many middle-class families today, the piano is the next logical purchase after the refrigerator, washer, and car. Music lessons, which can add points on the notoriously daunting gaokao (nationwide college exam), are never far behind. Pianos are the only Western instrument produced for mainly domestic consumption. In 2008, China exported 88% of its (Western) string instruments, and only 21% of its pianos. Between the vast talent pool, the boom in piano production, and the celebrity of Lang Lang and his peers, a piano golden age might not be too far away.

View photos of a Pearl River Piano outlet in the far-flung city of Sanming, Fujian Province; a Pearl River Piano factory; and a Pearl River factory dedicated to the wood components of its pianos.

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

Statistics courtesy of the China Musical Instrument Association.

10/30 Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra

It is rare to have an ensemble of Chinese instruments perform in the Western format of an orchestra. Never before had I ever experienced such a combination of sounds, even though I grew up in Shanghai, China.

Both Western and Chinese instruments do have elements in common, namely wood, metal, and string, but they are different in many ways. One sees many unfamiliar uses of these common materials, and one sees the use in Chinese instruments of such materials as gourds, hide, and stone, not found in Western ensembles, that produce distinct textures new to Western ears. Also, there are numerous string instruments configured very differently with different shaped sound chambers that produce similar but uniquely different sound characteristics.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra filled the hall with tremendous energy and gave the audience an extraordinary combination of layered, colorful sounds. Although the means was unfamiliar to most, the use of familiar musical forms and sonorous textures helped to bridge cultural borders and to make otherwise foreign musical sounds completely accessible to many listeners.

The principal conductor of the orchestra, Yan Huichang, led four major works: Law Wing-Fai's Flowing Phantasm, Guo Wenjing's Three Melodies of West Yunnan, Zhao Jiping's Zhuang Zhou's Dream, and Cheng Dazhao's The Yellow River Capriccio.

As I learned in China, the Yellow River is known as "the cradle of Chinese civilization" and has always been a great symbol of China's strength. The Capriccio, which celebrates the rich life along the Yellow River, is characterized by a unique climax that the audience participates in. When seating prior to the concert, we were most surprised to find a small Chinese hand drum placed on our seats. Just before the performance of the Capriccio, we were all given an impromptu lesson on their use. I was impressed by how quickly an entire audience responded to cues from Maestro Yan, not only to play the drum but also to sing. This certainly wasn't a typical Carnegie Hall experience! The result during the performance was a boisterous ending that included dialogue between the audience and the on-stage drum ensemble. Everyone left with a wonderful sense of energy.

So as the evening concluded, I found myself wondering: As a listener absorbed in the reflections of all this rich and new (to me) sound, I asked, is there some other essence of the Chinese character embodied in the music we heard besides the simple fact that it was played on (almost) purely Chinese instruments?

As I was leaving Carnegie Hall with good friends, pondering this question, suddenly the idea popped into my head. Yes. There was a "yin and yang" in the music that was more present than I had realized at first. It was about many contrasts and new textures combined with familiar musical form and metaphors that had communicated to me. But even more so, there was something from my own present, living in America, which looked forward to the future and combined with my distant past—and even with the past before that back to "classical" China—which had spoken to me this evening with such joy and vibrancy.

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

Did You Ever Wonder about the Piano in China?

China's relationship with the piano has always been more complicated than with other non-indigenous instruments. First, there was the size: In a country where instruments have historically been folk handicrafts, anything requiring a factory full of heavy machinery was bound to get off to a shaky start. Even after the piano became a well-known icon of Western music, its journey in China was more peculiar than in South Korea or Japan. In between colonial-era curiosity and middle-class affectation, the instrument was an unlikely but highly popular symbol of new proletarian music. Like the train, the steel mill, the tank, and the fighter jet, it was seen as a modern, mechanized tool for social advancement that could be turned to the service of the Revolution.

China's largest piano manufacturer, Pearl River Piano, was founded as a state-owned venture in 1956, amid China's bid to build its industrial capacity. These were heady days for pianos: The year before, Fou Ts'ong had taken home a prize from the International Chopin Piano Competition that made him a national celebrity. But for decades, the factory struggled to become more than a shoddy workshop. Even as a pianist like Yin Chengzong became a Cultural Revolution–era superstar with his renditions of Maoist music, the factory languished. Then came the 1980s, when China got serious about manufacturing and opened the Pearl River Delta region to foreign investment. Not to be outdone, China's flagship state-owned piano firm rushed to modernize.

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

10/29 Neighborhood Concert: Chinese Instrument Workshop @ University Settlement Houston Street Center

My grandfather, who came to America at the age of 12 from mainland China near Hong Kong, once said that he'd done everything a Chinese man could do in this country—manage a restaurant, own a laundromat, be an actor (by which he meant that he'd been in a Beijing Opera troupe in New York). When he died, I inherited his erhu, which I've since sort of learned to play despite a tear in the python-skin head. Obviously, over the last century, the opportunities available to Chinese in this country (visiting or native), have greatly expanded, and so have the uses of the erhu.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is a bit of a hybrid. The group employs traditional Chinese instruments in a configuration modeled after a Western orchestra, using variants on the erhu in sizes analogous to the Western string family, all with heads made of a synthetic instead of traditional python skin—biodegradable and ecologically sound, these instruments hold their tune during travel, not to mention a resistance to the sort of damage that my own instrument suffered!

The individual instruments played short demonstrations, including a lively rock-star turn by the pipa (plucked lute) player playing Ambush from Ten Sides, which resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat told us we might recognize from any number of Kung Fu movies. Also striking was the wind section's rendition of 100 Birds Calling to the Phoenix, which featured a circular-breathing clinic by the suona (a double-reed with a large bell) player as well as some inventive bird-calling by both suona and dizi (bamboo flute).

The traditional works are essentially heterophonous, which is to say that the instruments all play more or less the same melody, although individual players may add their own ornaments (a concept more or less foreign in Western classical music, although familiar in a typical Gospel choir).

A few audience members were invited to try their hand at the zheng (the plucked zither, memorably employed in fight sequences in Kung Fu Hustle and Hero), including a young man from PS 184M, named Kevin, who trotted down the aisle with both hands raised—a la Rocky—to the applause of his classmates. The event closed with a spirited rendition of Oh Susannah, performed first in a neo-Chinese style—the melody alternating between instruments with a bass line added—and then in a sort of Dixie-land breakdown with the suona player doing his best imitation of a bebop saxophone.

Posted by Wesley Chinn, a freelance singer, instrumentalist, and conductor; and general manager of Opera Omnia.

Is it Chinese, or Is it an Orchestra?

For those who don’t live in Hong Kong—sometimes even for those who do—the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra can be a baffling institution. Is it traditional, or is it modern? For a town that thinks nothing of wrapping a slice of bacon around a piece of shrimp (hardly a traditional Cantonese delicacy), this shouldn’t even be a question. The HKCO is fusion cuisine for the ears.

Compared to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and even the more localized Hong Kong Sinfonietta, both of which have the weight of bearing Western tradition in a strange environment on their shoulders, the HKCO wears tradition lightly and develops its repertory aggressively. In three decades, the orchestra has commissioned more than 1,700 new works and arrangements, making it a role model for any musical institution in the world in cultivating a repertory for the future.

I’m pretty sure none of that matters to the audience, though, and the orchestra has managed to cultivate one of the most fiercely devoted followings in town. This has to do with the playing, which bridges the whopping gap that most organizations face. How do you reach a weekly subscription series that would satisfy audiences from both The New York Pops and the American Composers Orchestra? By remaining playful even in art and finding gravitas even in frivolous pieces. Compare the HKCO version of Tan Dun’s “Eroica” Symphony for YouTube (arranged for Chinese instruments by resident conductor Chew Hee-Chiat) with the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Posted by Ken Smith

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