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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

11/9 New Juilliard Ensemble @ Alice Tully Hall

For my money, the mid-size chamber ensemble is the best and most versatile platform for exhibiting works by modern Chinese composers. It’s large enough to accommodate a healthy roster of Western and Chinese instruments, with lots of places to go in terms of color and volume. But still small enough to keep things loose and improvisatory in the style of traditional Chinese music, most of which had no notation and was played on instruments that are essentially folk handicrafts.

Last night’s Alice Tully show by the New Juilliard Ensemble exhibited six works by six modern Chinese composers: five of mid-1950s vintage, and one born in 1988. The latter was Li Shaosheng, whose Skyline on the Moon was a world premiere composed especially for the ensemble; the rest were well-established composers representing Beijing, Shanghai, and China’s interior. All the pieces shared in common a chamber-orchestra format, and a rough similarity in style that ranged between a carefree Bartók, a distracted Stravinsky, Copland-Bernstein, and a little rock n’ roll. But the diversity within these broad parameters was impressive and seductive—like, at the risk of veering into cliché, China herself. In Guo Wenjing’s Concertino, the solo cello was the star; in Zhu Jian’er’s symphony, the extremely versatile dizi flute. Rumbles from the bass drum opened and closed young Li’s well-received and highly scenic piece, while his teacher Ye Xiaogang used strings and angular rhythms to do justice to the title of his Nine Horses. The rock- and writing-inclined Liu Sola offered one of her rare returns to classical music with In-Corporeal I (pop beats, drumset, and all), and Jia Daqun’s densely colorful Three Images from Ink and Wash Painting tried with good success to adapt to music styles of Chinese calligraphy.

The program’s strongly visual theme didn’t go amiss, either: In a time when much of modern music can feel aggressively antisocial and abstract, sometimes it’s nice to sit back with fellow concertgoers and take in the views.

Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China

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