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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

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.

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