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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

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

10/28 Juilliard Orchestra

Wednesday night’s concert, featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, the Juilliard Orchestra, pianist Lang Lang, and singers Anne Sofie von Otter and Gregory Kunde, clearly illustrated the multitude of ways that composers, like Lou Harrison and Gustav Mahler, have incorporated Asian influences into the Western classical idiom.

Harrison had the opportunity, through travel and recordings, to study Asian music; the opening of his “The Family of the Court” evokes the Far East in a way that Mahler might not have recognized. Perhaps the most striking timbre is the assortment of Asian instruments that Harrison employs in a grand opening that instantly transports the listener.

In Das Lied von der Erde, when Mahler has the oboe play a pentatonic melody in “Von der Jugend,” it sounds Asian because the instrument itself can evoke a Far Eastern tone. When the brass instruments repeat the figure moments later, however, the result sounds much more Western.

A similar phenomenon was apparent in Lang Lang’s solo piano set. He Luting elegantly creates counterpoint out of a Chinese-sounding melody, whereas Lü Wenching uses chords under his melody; in both cases, Lang Lang’s expressive playing created a tonal tableau that sounded distinctly Chinese. Sun Yiqiang’s “Dance of Spring” on the other hand, uses a rocking accompaniment under a swirling melody that could easily be mistaken as the work of a Western composer.

Chen Qigang’s elegant Er Huang for piano and orchestra, meanwhile, combined many of these elements to create a work that was both distinctly Chinese and also clearly within the Western classical tradition. It appeared to me that the members of the Juilliard Orchestra certainly appreciated the opportunity to be in such a grand hall taking part in this East meets West mash-up.

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

10/26 Lang Lang @ Shanghai Tang

Ensemble ACJW/Juilliard

View a slide show from the October 26 exclusive meet and greet event at the Shanghai Tang store, featuring virtuoso pianist Lang Lang.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

10/28 Neighborhood Concert: Chinese Instrument Workshop @ Flushing Town Hall

Ensemble ACJW/Juilliard

View a slide show from the October 28, 2009, Neighborhood Concert: Chinese Instrument Workshop at Flushing Town Hall, featuring members of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

Don't Feed the Pipas

For those who’ve already gotten as close to the qin as possible without touching it, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra now offers its instrument petting zoo. That may be a little exaggeration, but HKCO resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat insists that after the orchestra’s workshop presentation this morning at Flushing Town Hall (and again tomorrow at the University Settlement at the Houston Street Center), members of the audience should touch and at least attempt to play some of the instruments.

“I suggest the zheng (zither), because it’s tuned in pentatonic and you can never hit a ‘wrong’ note,” says Chew, who has been with the orchestra since 2001.

Both in Hong Kong and on tour abroad, the HKCO has introduced the concept of “modern Chinese traditional music” with missionary zeal, not only in concerts but also in lecture demonstrations incorporating audience participation. Largely following the format the orchestra uses in Hong Kong, Chew will lead an ensemble of a dozen players—equally balanced between Chinese wind, plucked-string, bowed-string, and percussion instruments—in a trio of works including a contemporary composition, a traditional folk tune arrangement, and (obviously playing to the home team) an arrangement of “Oh, Susanna.”

“Actually, what we do for Western audiences is not so different from what we do at home,” says the Malaysian-born, US-educated Chew, who conducts the HKCO workshops for English speakers. “You’d think that Chinese listeners might know more about their own tradition—and they usually are more used to hearing the sounds of the instruments without knowing exactly what they are. But we’ve found that Western audiences who seek out our events actually know a lot more.”

Posted by Ken Smith

The Other Conservatory

Ensemble ACJW/Juilliard

With all the attention being given to the Central Conservatory of Music, Bright Sheng—the only composer on the Ensemble ACJW’s Class of 1978 program to attend the Shanghai Conservatory—was probably feeling a little lonely. That is, until last night.

Sheng, who attended the Ensemble’s performance at Weill Recital Hall (and even gave a short introduction to his Third String Quartet), had an impromptu, smiling reunion before the concert with his classmate Yan Huichang, now the music director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Yan, who had landed in New York only a few hours earlier, rushed over to Weill Recital Hall as soon as he heard about the composers being featured on the program.

The Shanghai Conservatory, as former students Sheng or Yan will be quick to tell you, is the oldest conservatory in China—founded in 1927 as the National Conservatory and holding that position up until the Central Conservatory of Music was founded in Beijing in 1950. Rivalry between the two has been fierce over the years, but it stops at the professional level. Yan, a longtime friend of composers (and indeed an occasional composer himself) programs Chinese composers almost exclusively, and will even feature Guo Wenjing—a Central Conservatory alumnus featured on the Ensemble’s performance last night—on the HKCO’s own concert on October 30.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/26 Ensemble ACJW @ Weill Recital Hall and Tan Dun w/ the Juilliard Orchestra @ Alice Tully Hall

Ensemble ACJW/Juilliard

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson on Saturday, but here I was again. Who in their right mind would schedule two programs of contemporary Chinese music on the same night in different venues? Who in their right mind would try to go to both? At least this time I didn’t have to travel on the subway.

Even with Saturday’s preview from the Ensemble ACJW’s Neighborhood Concert at Flushing Town Hall, I was unprepared for the sheer force of hearing those same pieces in the acoustics of Weill Recital Hall. Perhaps it was the presence of the composer in the hall, but Chen Qigang’s Instants d’un opera de Pékin spun off into another world entirely. Chen Yi’s Qi continued that effect, having emerged glistening from the darkness—literally, the house and stage lights having been turned off for atmosphere. Bright Sheng, who was also in attendance, added considerable focus to his Third String Quartet with his brief introduction of the piece as his personal tribute to Bartók (a composer he explored at length some 10 years ago in his essay “Bartók, the Chinese Composer”).

Then came intermission and I had to dash, which meant that I again missed Guo Wenjing’s Parade and Zhou Long’s Taigu Rhyme. At least there’s YouTube for Parade, and the Beijing New Music Ensemble’s recording of Taigu Rhyme on Naxos. [Note to self: buy Guo and Zhou a beer and apologize.]

Over at Alice Tully Hall, the scene was a madhouse. Tickets had been hard to come by for days, and the line for returns had stretched through the lobby earlier in the evening. I got to Tully at the end of Secret Land, Tan Dun’s piece for 12 cellos, and I can report that the lobby screen and speaker system for latecomers is one of the best in town.

After intermission, Tan briefly introduced his Violin Concerto, The Love, as three stages of romantic life. It was certainly three stages (at least) of the composer’s life, ending with a large stretch of his 1994 mini-concerto Out of Peking Opera, with a lush reworking of material from his 2000 Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack in the middle, and beginning with a new and aggressive percussion opening that showed off the Juilliard Orchestra to its fullest. This was some of the most energetic orchestral playing I’ve heard in a while, filled with a palpable sense of excitement and discovery.

Posted by Ken Smith

What's an Extra Vowel Among Friends?

Putting groups from both Shaanxi province (the Zhang Family Band) and Shanxi province (the Li Daoist Band) on the same program sounds like either a strange coincidence or a deliberate attempt to confuse Westerners. In fact, the similar name highlights one of the problems in rendering the Chinese language in Roman letters. Under conventional pinyin, now the standard Romanization system in Chinese, the word for both neighboring provinces should be spelled “Shanxi,” though pronounced with different tones (the “Shanxi” with one “a” is high, “Shaanxi” with two “a’s” is flat and low). To indicate the difference without using tone markings, Shaanxi got the extra “a” (making it the only Chinese province that doesn’t follow strict pinyin).

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A demonstration of the difference in pronunciation between Shanxi province and Shaanxi province.

Ironically enough, both the Zhang Family Band and the Li Daoist Band spoke in different local dialects (as opposed to the Dong singers the night before, who speak a different language entirely). Though still recognized as Chinese, the performance languages of the Zhangs and Lis were unintelligible even to those Chinese speakers who understand only conventional Mandarin. This probably had some bearing on why there were no translations provided at the event.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/25 Chinese Teahouse @ The Asia Society

Mingmei Yip

The eighth floor of the Asia Society, generally used for lectures and symposiums, was billed as a “teahouse” last Sunday, both figuratively for its informal atmosphere and literally for the beverages and sweets being served in the back. There was still a hint of symposium, though, in the way that both the music and the qin made their way through the evening.

In these surroundings, much more intimate than the more formal concert setting at Zankel Hall, Wu Man was better able to serve as a direct conduit between the musicians and the audience—that is, until introducing her former conservatory roommate, qin player Zhao Jiachen, when neither Ms. Wu nor Ms. Zhao could render the title of the qin piece in English.

“It’s called Geese Descending on the Sandy Bank,” said Mingmei Yip, a fellow qin player (and Carnegie Hall festival participant) who was sitting in the second row. Looking around, I could see a number of people in the room who had also been to Ms. Yip’s lecture-demonstration at the China Institute last Thursday and now had a completely new frame of reference for China’s most iconic instrument.

Zhao and Yip, it became obvious, come from completely different traditions—the former emphasizing rhythm and musical line, the latter focusing on timbral subtleties. It’s the difference between conservatory and private gatherings, between tablature as score to perform or literature to read, between someone who plays for other people and someone who plays mostly for herself.

Wu Man directly engaged with the Dong singers, briefly explaining their songs. It turned out that several of the audience members were already familiar with the Dong. Many had been to Guizhou province and a few even came to the performance wearing traditional Dong attire.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/25 Neighborhood Concert: Ensemble ACJW @ Flushing Town Hall

Last Saturday, listeners who wanted to hunt down additional music from Carnegie Hall’s China festival had a choice between two free Neighborhood Concerts: Ensemble ACJW’s tribute to the Class of 1978 (the first graduating class from music conservatories after China’s Cultural Revolution) at Flushing Town Hall at 2 PM, or the Zhang Family Band at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side at 3 PM. Could the performances have been less geographically compatible? “Actually, we make a point of that,” said Sarah Johnson, the Director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. “We want to spread Carnegie Hall as far as we possibly can.”

Fine, but for those who are interested in both contemporary composition and traditional music, the afternoon presented an obvious dilemma. Since I hate making choices, I tried to go to both concerts.

Flushing Town Hall may not have the acoustics of Weill Recital Hall, but otherwise it’s a welcoming venue. This was the first festival Neighborhood Concert I’d attended without Wu Man hosting, but the members of Ensemble ACJW (along with a Chinese translator) had things well in hand. Hearing new music with different audiences is always a reality check, and I must say it’s always encouraging to hear more than 200 people warmly applauding a concert where the oldest piece on the program (Bright Sheng’s String Quartet No. 3) is from 1993.

It was after Sheng’s piece—more than halfway through the program—that I tore out to try to catch part of the Zhangs. But alas, I got stuck for 20 minutes on the No. 7 line due to weekend track work. By the time I surfaced downtown, taxi drivers had just changed shifts, and there was not a car to be had. So I missed seeing how the Zhangs, who so effectively grabbed Carnegie Hall audiences by the throats at Zankel Hall the night before, would fare in a smaller neighborhood setting.

I still blame the MTA.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/24 Ancient Spirits @ Zankel Hall

Ancient Spirits

Much has been made of the ancient connections between spirituality and theatricality. No good piece of theater exists without a spiritual core, and no display of spirituality is effective without at least a touch of theater. So the pairing of the Zhang Family Band, whose distinctive style of shadow puppetry stems from their oral folk culture, with the Li Family Daoist Band, a family of ritual musicians from the neighboring province, made for a colorful and insightful juxtaposition.

It also proved to be no fluke that the Dong singers had thoroughly rearranged their song selection the night before. Even performers from literate cultures, it seems, have no tradition of sticking to the printed program.

The Zhangs exploded with an almost frightening level of intensity, which they soon tempered to give longer-term dramatic shape to the evening. This did little to rob the performance of its visceral immediacy, however. Take away the traditional trumpets, suonas and rustic percussion (including banging bricks on benches) and you could imagine their rough-hewn vocals successfully making the leap to a heavy metal band. Particularly intriguing in their segment was the use of shadow puppets, a longtime folk art in Shaanxi province.

Like the Zhangs before them, the Li Daoist Band, too, departed from the announced order of their program. In distilling a three-day funeral ritual into a 45-minute concert segment, they conflated two hymn sequences into an unbroken vocal segment. But then, not many people read their program at a Daoist funeral. Like most ritual music—as well as early works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, which the sheng mouth organs evoked—the music was deliberately about not keeping track of time, and losing yourself into a different state of consciousness.

One could imagine reversing the two bands and having an equally valid, though completely opposite, experience. After the Zhangs, you felt like banging bricks on benches yourself. The Lis were more delicately cathartic, with a feeling of having completed a spiritual journey.

Posted by Ken Smith

10/24 Shen Wei Dance Arts at 10 @ Works and Process at the Guggenheim

Shen Wei

View a slide show from the October 24, 2009, Shen Wei Dance Arts at 10 performance at Works and Process at the Guggenheim.

Posted by Carnegie Hall

10/25 Neighborhood Concert: Ensemble ACJW @ Flushing Town Hall

Tonight, at 7:30 PM in Weill Recital Hall, Ensemble ACJW will reprise Sunday’s Neighborhood Concert, which took place at Flushing Town Hall in Queens. I can assure you that although this music was fascinating to get to know from recordings and Academy Fellows’ anecdotes, it has a much greater impact when heard live from the concert stage. I had mentioned in my previous blog posting that I was looking forward to hearing Bright Sheng’s Third String Quartet live, and I got that opportunity twice yesterday—once at the dress rehearsal and again during the concert! The group shone in a vigorous rendition of this work—accentuating the violent drive that makes up the majority of the piece, while reserving a poignant sensitivity for the closing elegy.

I had never heard Guo Wenjing’s Parade for Six Peking Opera Gongs, until yesterday. I had no idea these instruments were so versatile in the variety of sound they could produce, but was quickly schooled by the percussion trio’s skilled performance. It was very clever programming on the part of the artistic committee to juxtapose this piece with Bright Sheng’s work—each piece played on the subtle (or, not so subtle) differences in timbre, technique, and register possible from instruments belonging to the same family.

Since my little brother happened to be in town this weekend, and had a plane to catch to Chicago, I had to cut out early and was unable to listen to the live rendition of Zhou Long’s Taigu Rhyme. However, from the feedback through the grapevine, I got the impression that this piece makes an excellent closer to the concert, and I can’t wait to hear it live, tonight!

I refuse to play the part of the narcissistic pianist and comment on the performances I played in myself (Chen Qigang’s Instants d’un Opéra de Pékin for Solo Piano and Chen Yi’s Qi for Flute, Cello, Percussion, and Piano), but I do have to say that it was a joy to work on and perform this music with such daring and dynamic players. I hope to see you tonight!

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Excerpt from Zhou Long's Taigu Rhyme
Beijing New Music Ensemble

Posted by Gregory DeTurck, an award-winning pianist and current Fellow of The Academy—a Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

Dealing with Culture Shock


Culture shock is bound to happen in something like Carnegie Hall’s Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. The problem is, you can never predict how or when it will happen. Take the artists involved in last Friday’s Taste of China program, for example. Some of the Dong singers have never been out of their village; even if they’ve made it to the local county town, they have never had to use an elevator. Befuddled by how to get to their Times Square hotel rooms, they were told to “get in the big box and push the number of their floor.” Unfortunately, coming from a minority culture that traditionally had no written language, some of them still could not read Arabic numerals. Let’s not even think about trying to order late-night room service …

An entirely different level of culture shock hit the players from the Ba Da Chui percussion quartet once they got to New York. Coming from Beijing, a sprawling mess of a city—as diffused as Los Angeles, but on a much grander scale—they’re used to spending much of their day in the car. Elevators are no problem, but it’s hard for them to imagine any civilized city today where you have to walk more than 15 minutes!

That said, between walking and driving, the visiting performers have seen quite a bit of New York this weekend—starting with Times Square and, thanks to Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert Series, making their way into other parts of Manhattan and the outer boroughs.

Posted by Ken Smith

Personal Interconnections

Ba Da Chui

Sooner or later, the truth had to come out. On Saturday afternoon, Wu Man finally admitted to the audience at Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert at the University Settlement that the qin player Zhao Jiazhen—her friend since their days at the Central Conservatory—is married to percussionist Li Congnong, co-founder of the Ba Da Chui percussion quartet. “I originally didn’t want to say anything,” Wu Man said after the performance. “but she kept saying, ‘Go ahead and tell them.’”

It explained not only how Ms. Zhao turned up on the program unannounced, but also why she played a duet with Mr. Li—a particularly silk roady kind of piece with obvious Muslim influences that was rather far afield from her own qin tradition (You can find a sample of that piece at the bottom of this post.) Good relationships are key to good music making everywhere—all the more so in China, where the system of business and social connections has long been codified in the term guanxi. More to follow on how guanxi has played a part in Carnegie Hall’s Chinese programming, but first a note about how the Lis spent their weekend offstage: Their 17-year-old son, currently a clarinet student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, came in from Michigan to spend the weekend with his parents.

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Excerpt from Spring Breeze
Zhao Jiazhen, qin; Li Congnong, percussion
Rhymoi Music

Posted by Ken Smith

10/24 Neighborhood Concert: Ba Da Chui @ The Performance Project @ University Settlement

Ba Da Chui

“This is Beijing sound,” said Wu Man, when the Peking Opera gong sounded its upward high-pitched sweep. “Now this is Hunan sound,” she added after another percussionist offered a relatively clipped, flat thump of an otherwise similar circle of metal. “The languages are very different.”

If Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert at the University Settlement offered a closer connection to the artists than the more formal format at Zankel Hall, it also traced the legwork that Ba Da Chui (literally, “Eight Mallets”) has done since 1992, when four conservatory-trained percussionists in Beijing realized they knew plenty about Peking Opera and Beethoven’s timpani parts, but little about the breadth of regional Chinese percussion. Since then, they’ve delved deeply into China’s vast array of metal, wood, and skin drums; and the different cultures that surround them.

Each player had a broad range of stylistic experience going in, from Peking Opera orchestras to contemporary composition to commercial studio gigs. Co-founder Li Congnong often plays with the Beijing New Music Ensemble. Another co-founder Ma Li (who had another commitment this month and did not come to New York) spent two months last fall in San Francisco performing in the Stewart Wallace-Amy Tan opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter. “Eight Mallets” plays together regularly, though infrequently, given the players’ schedules. The last time I saw them perform was at this season’s Hong Kong Drum Festival opening event with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (more on the HKCO later).

Saturday’s Neighborhood Concert attracted a good mix of young and old—toddlers sometimes sitting on a parent’s lap—and the mix of Chinese and non-Chinese that you’d expect at the intersection of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The qin player Zhao Jiazhen gave an unscheduled but welcome performance of Flowing River that served as a contemplative palate cleanser between the percussionists’ cymbal-heavy Squabbling Ducks and the piercing Peking Opera sounds of the flatboard drum.

Posted by Ken Smith

Bright on the Mark

Bright Sheng’s Third String Quartet is the centerpiece of Ensemble ACJW’s Class of 1978 concerts on October 25 and October 26. Strictly from a listener’s standpoint, this piece invokes the quartets of Bartók and Janáček—innovative sonorites, impulsive rhythms, and intelligent construction. The silvery chant-like atmosphere of the opening of Sheng’s work is juxtaposed with a dance-like fury, developing over a period of ten minutes into outright violence. An elegiac coda closes the piece, reminiscent of the opening rhythm and pitches, but now much more serious, earthbound, and resigned. Sheng explains in his program notes for this quartet, that although the two initial textures were inspired by a Tibetan folk dance he saw in Chinhai, he didn’t try to recreate that exact scene. He also explains that the closing elegy, composed in 1993, is in memory of his friends who had recently passed away.

Sheng gives particular attention to detail when creating textures. The kaleidoscopic means by which he navigates from one sonority to the next gives the piece a tight cohesion, despite radical differences in each section’s tempo and character. He achieves a marvelous effect about halfway through the work, creating a pipa-like sound out of the instrument’s four strings. Though rhythmically much like the opening, Sheng substitutes fluidity for a sharp pizzicato line; if you were blindfolded at the concert, you might mistake the resulting timbre for a Chinese folk instrument. He also tips his hat to Shostakovich in this section with the wonderful detail of occasionally having one instrument pluck a note as another begins to bow the same pitch (with or without displacing the octave), resulting in a “delayed-decay” effect.

Brenton Caldwell, the violist for this performance, spoke of the absolute focus it takes to pull off such an extreme work. “It takes all of your concentration to perform it … but it’s definitely worth it.” The quartet for this performance is rounded out by Joanna Frankel and Yonah Zur, violinists; and Nick Canellakis, cellist. I’m looking forward to hearing this piece live for the first time, especially from a quartet of this caliber.

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Excerpt from Bright Sheng's String Quartet No. 3
Shanghai String Quartet
BIS Records

Posted by Gregory DeTurck, an award-winning pianist and current Fellow of The Academy—a Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

10/23 Taste of China @ Zankel Hall

Taste of China

Perhaps the most inspired idea in Wu Man’s first Zankel Hall event last night was opening with the 15-minute documentary entitled Discovering a Musical Heartland—Wu Man’s Return to China, which shows just how far removed Chinese traditions are from the Western concert experience. When you see where the performers come from, you’re already primed to accept their music on different terms.

In the case of the Dong singers from Guizhou, nothing in their demeanor indicated they were anything but village peasants sharing their local customs. Their every second on stage was a combination of awkwardness and naturalness, with little of the professional makeover that comes from being primed for touristic and media performance. The first thing you heard when they came out in traditional dress was a rustling of wind chimes (which was actually the clinking of pure and alloyed silver adornments that represent a good portion of a village girl’s dowry). The second thing was a distinctive sense of musical texture—particularly microtonal to our ears, clearly not “cleaned up” for the masses. (As we learned years ago from Soviet musicologists, a little conservatory training can be dangerous for minority traditions). These Dong villagers were definitely the real thing.

So too is the percussion ensemble Ba Da Chui, though they represent a different take on tradition entirely. Where the Dong are an ethnic minority, as removed from Chinese mainstream culture as Appalachian folk singing is in America, Ba Da Chui (or “Eight Mallets,” as they’re translated on programs in China) is a tightly rehearsed, conservatory-trained, Beijing-based collective who use their virtuosity as a means to connect more deeply with their culture. And like the Dong, their audience is usually their fellow villagers—although in this case, their “village” has some 15 million neighbors. They opened with a brilliantly studied take on dailuzi cymbal playing from the Tujia people, an ethnic minority from Hunan also referenced at Carnegie Hall in Tan Dun’s multimedia concerto, The Map. Too much good stuff followed to summarize adequately here. More on Eight Mallets later after their neighborhood concert this afternoon.

Coming between the two—in philosophy as well as program placement—was the qin player Zhao Jiazhen, a longtime friend of Wu Man from the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Both share a similar approach to their instrument, treating its tradition not as history but as a continuum stretching into the present. And both were confident enough in their roots to carry the tradition in new directions.

The only significant glitch of the evening from the audience’s perspective was that the Dong singers—clearly unfamiliar with the conventions of Western programs—completely reordered their program and rarely paused between songs, making it seem more like an actual village gathering, though impossible to follow from the program notes. Eight Mallets, on the other hand, went on exactly as noted. You could tell that by next Thursday, the Dong women will be back home picking rice in the fields, while the percussionists will be back in Beijing preparing for their next gig.

Posted by Ken Smith

"The Love" is in the Air

Juilliard Orchestra

“This first movement is about teenage love,” composer Tan Dun told members of the Juilliard Orchestra from the podium during a recent rehearsal. “This music is for you.”

Actually, the music is for violinist Cho-Liang Lin—“Professor Jimmy,” as Tan referred to him throughout the morning—an alumnus and current Juilliard faculty member. Tan describes his three-movement violin concerto, The Love—which premieres at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening—as three stages of romantic life. Minus the romantic part, it also pretty much traces Tan’s relationship with Professor Jimmy.

The roots of the concerto date back to 1987, shortly after the composer landed in New York, when he was still trying to reconcile his musical mother tongue of Peking opera with his adopted post-serial language from conservatory. Several years later, the Taiwan-born Lin discovered Tan’s youthful piece—Out of Peking Opera—from the other direction, as a reflection of the Chinese culture he left behind as a child. A few revisions later, Lin premiered the work and recorded it with the Helsinki Philharmonic for Ondine. “Tan helped teach me to be Chinese,” he joked at the time.

This week, Tan was trying to do much the same with the Juilliard musicians, particularly percussionists unfamiliar with traditional Chinese instruments. From his earlier 15-minute piece—essentially Farewell my Concubine filtered through the violin concertos of Bartók and Berg—Tan has now fashioned a full 30-minute concerto with a percussion-heavy opening that the composer calls “atonal rock ’n’ roll.” It brought back a few memories for Lin, recalling that when he played the earlier piece in Shanghai, the Western-trained Chinese percussionists didn’t know how to play the instruments either.

“None of them could get the gong to make its upward sound,” he said. “They had to learn from the stagehand, who used to be a Peking opera player.”

Lin, who went through rehearsal at Juilliard checking the new version against the old for typos, admits that, despite some radically different treatment in the orchestra, the requirements for the soloist are much the same. “Actually, I’m suppose to play Out of Peking Opera next week at the Segerstrom Center,” he says. “I just need to make sure I bring the right music.”

Posted by Ken Smith

Connect the Dots ...

It’s humbling to think that exactly a year ago, I was actually in Beijing performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the Forbidden City Concert Hall. This was part of a project established by the U.S. Embassy to celebrate 30 years of artistic exchange with China. The circumstances couldn’t have been more apropos: an American pianist playing an iconic American piece with a Chinese orchestra in one of the more famous Chinese landmarks. The clincher is that now, a year later, an American pianist is performing a Chinese masterwork in America’s most famous concert hall, also to celebrate and encourage cultural exchange.

On October 25, I will have the honor of kicking off Ensemble ACJW’s Class of 1978 concert with Chen Qigang’s Instants d’un Opéra de Pékin for solo piano. Chen wrote this work as the compulsory piece for the 2000 Concours d’interpretation Olivier Messiaen (he revised the piece in 2004). Messiaen accepted Chen as his final student after he left the Paris Conservatoire, being impressed with Chen’s intellect and compositions as well as his ability to merge Chinese and European musical idioms in an individual way.

In Instants, however, Chen had to incorporate a third influence. Compulsory pieces for international piano competitions are usually between four and 10 minutes long and often feature a slow opening followed by a faster section in which pyrotechnics are concentrated, testing the player’s stamina. While these elements are all present in this work, Chen maintains a beautiful marriage between French and Chinese styles. The opening five-note motive (around which the entire piece is built) is first presented over the lower five octaves of the piano, evoking a late-Debussy sonority. Soon afterward, this motive becomes more melodic and is harmonized with a succession of perfect fifths that reminds us of the opening of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. In the atmospheric sections, successions of dense chords with complicated voice-leading recall moments from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards de l’Enfant Jesus. Through this French veil, the recurring pentatonic theme and its percussive treatment remind us of the jinghu, yueqin, gu, and ban, instruments that accompany traditional Peking opera.

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Excerpt from Chen Qigang's Instants d’un Opéra de Pékin
Joel Fan, piano
Reference Recordings

Posted by Gregory DeTurck, an award-winning pianist and current Fellow of The Academy—a Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

Sharing Secrets

The other night, Tan Dun found himself facing a half-circle of 12 cellists. Nothing new about that. The composer has conducted his Secret Land (originally written for the cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker) with at least a dozen orchestras. But this time the setting was The Juilliard School—in preparation for the piece’s New York premiere on Monday’s all-Tan Dun concert at Alice Tully Hall—and the players were all students. Unlike his Class of 1978 colleagues Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long, Tan has never held an academic position, but anyone who’s ever seen him in rehearsal knows that he loves to teach.

“What would you say is your most memorable musical experience?” Tan asked the young player directly in front of him who had just finished a solo section.

“I’d say going to the Met.”

“Ah, the Met,” said the composer of The First Emperor. “You like drama. Let’s be a little more dramatic.”

The next time through was indeed more dramatic—not just for the player in question, but for his 11 colleagues as well. A few minutes and another solo passage later, Tan singled out another player. “I didn’t know you at the beginning, but I know you now,” he told her gently. “You play well, but you are a little scared. I bet that at parties, you are not so scared.” Smiles all around, but the next time through was indeed less tentative throughout the ranks.

In the next hour, the student players learned not only Tan’s score, but also his concepts of silence within sound. (“The great cellists—Yo-Yo Ma, Wang Jian, Maya Beiser—when they play, you see both the player and the listener.”) They were also schooled on the underlying universality of music. (“Schoenberg and Indian raga are millions of years apart, but yet they are exactly the same.”)

The next stopping point in rehearsal came after two players sitting side-by-side finished a section of what Tan called “chromatic improvisation.”

“Be natural,” he advised. “Play whatever you feel and a philosophy will come.”

As the cellists began packing their instruments, the composer stepped to the side. “They’re students, so they come ready to listen, listen, listen,” he mused. “The Berlin Phil always thinks about discovery, discovery, discovery. My goal was to get the Berlin Phil to listen and the students to discover.”

Posted by Ken Smith

10/22 Qin And Chinese Calligraphy @ China Institute

Mingmei Yip

On one hand, Mingmei Yip was hardly a traditional Chinese girl. “Women used to be discouraged from playing the qin,” the Hong Kong-born Yip told audiences at last night’s lecture-demonstration Qin and Chinese Calligraphy at the China Institute. “Any talents or abilities made a woman less attractive.”

Ever since playing the qin became formally recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, men and women have both been flocking to China’s ancient zither. But Yip was ahead of the curve, having studied with a longtime proponent of the tradition—another woman, as it happened—Hong Kong-based master Tsar Teh-yun. “They say both qin-playing and calligraphy lead to longevity,” Yip said. “My teacher lived to be 103.”

Gender issues aside, however, Yip—who went on to write her dissertation on the history and aesthetics of the qin at the Sorbonne (Paris)—falls squarely into the world of Chinese literati, for whom the qin, calligraphy, painting, and poetry are all interrelated. As a practitioner and teacher of calligraphy (currently at CUNY), a devoted advocate of the qin, and a writer-illustrator of children’s books (including her 2008 novel Peach Blossom Pavilion, featuring a qin-playing courtesan), Yip is clearly a scholar for the modern age.

Her talk, which filled the China Institute’s 70-seat hall to capacity, also filled an obvious gap for any institution the size of Carnegie Hall: how to experience the subtle nuances of an instrument usually heard by an audience of one, and sometimes only by the player. The evening often found connections between visual and musical aesthetics—how balancing line and space can equate with sound and silence—as well as comparisons to Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock, who offer much of the style of Chinese calligraphy with none of the literal meaning of the written language.

There were a handful of musicians in the room, as well as a number of calligraphers who could not only read Yip’s elegant characters, but also called out technical terms when she paused over their names in English. But few from one discipline seemed to have studied the other. Safe to say, everyone in the audience learned something about something.

Posted by Ken Smith

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Chinese Translation (Traditional Characters)
Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)