The gentleman standing in the refreshments line at intermission, pontificating loudly à la “Annie Hall," may stand corrected. The Stravinsky was not a richly compelling and daringly visionary break from the composer's canon that is unlike any other Stravinsky piece you've ever heard. In fact, the material in Chant du rossignol predates his most famous works. Moreover, clearly audible within is an early sketchpad for many of his later ballets, notwithstanding the shine and dazzle of unusual, "Oriental"-sounding tonalities.
What was somewhat novel was the juxtaposition: sandwiching two modern Chinese pieces between two works of chinoiserie. Chant du rossignol and Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite both hail from an era when the West's limited understanding of Chinese music came through interpretation by Western masters. Even those composers who made some use of actual Chinese tunes and scales—like the famous Turandot theme based on the traditional "Jasmine Flower" melody—still ended up with Chinese caricatures embedded in often-great works of music.
How things have changed: Last night's other pieces were from Chinese masters, stars from China's first generation of modern composers to have ample life experience at home and in the West. Both pieces set an unusual solo instrument against rich orchestral textures, and both had tersely poetic Chinese names belied by their English titles: Bright Sheng's Colors of Crimson condenses down to the color-word Jiàng, while the grand-sounding Water Concerto, by Tan Dun, is two syllables, Shuĭyuè, "water music." The solos, both performed by Colin Currie, were likewise pure and simple but deeply felt. For Tan's piece twanging, splashing, bubbling water; for Sheng's, a marimba that floated over the orchestra parts.
Bright Sheng and Tan Dun looked on from the audience as David Robertson conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Each approached the stage for bows after their pieces, and each was intercepted by a beaming Robertson who dashed down to administer hugs before they could even get up the parquet stairs. It was just as well that Bartók and Stravinsky couldn't make it last night; the old masters were good, but their Chinese counterparts stole the show.
View a slide show from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall on November 4, 2009.
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China