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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

No Butterflies

One major difference between Carnegie Hall’s Ancient Paths, Modern Voices and nearly any music presenter in Greater China is the lack of the “Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto on the Carnegie Hall program. This is especially striking now, since last Friday night alone the “Butterfly Lovers” was on the program for both the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Macau Orchestra (where having booked the original soloist, Yu Lina, created such demand that the Macau International Music Festival had to add a second performance). This week, Jie Chen performs her version of the piece for piano in Taipei.

Of course the comparison is not entirely fair. October 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic; the “Butterfly Lovers” was written 50 years ago to mark the PRC’s 10th anniversary. Anniversaries rule programming everywhere, it seems, but the piece’s blend of Chinese operatic fiddling and faux-Tchaikovsky orchestration still quintessentially illustrates Chinese musical values (prizing melody and timbre well above rhythm and harmony, and forgoing musical consistency in favor an extra-musical story).

Not featuring the “Butterfly Lovers”—particularly when international artists like Gil Shaham have begun championing the piece—is actually like presenting a festival of American music without Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The message is clear: the “Butterfly Lovers” (or for that matter, the equally omnipresent “Yellow River” Piano Concerto, which is likewise missing from the festival) is hardly a definitive statement. Rather, it marks a transitional moment in an ongoing tradition. Welcome to China’s musical life after—and before—butterflies.

Posted by Ken Smith

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