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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

10/26 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

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