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