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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

10/28 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.

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