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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

Iris dévoilée veiled

Chen Qigang’s Iris dévoilée, a 40-minute work examining the various faces of womanhood that closes the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival, not only landed the composer a multi-recording relationship with EMI Classics, but has also become a popular showpiece for Chinese orchestras up and down China’s East Coast. When the Guangzhou Symphony needed a Chinese piece to perform on its US tour in 2005, Iris was the work chosen. The piece requires a balanced understanding of Chinese and Western idioms; as with Beethoven or Mahler in the West, I often use it to compare various orchestras in China. The Hong Kong Philharmonic emphasized its French qualities; at its Chinese premiere, with the Beijing-based China Philharmonic, it was unambiguously Chinese.

That premiere, which took place at the 2002 Beijing Music Festival at an all-Chen concert conducted by Muhai Tang (who had premiered and recorded Iris in Paris a year earlier), was also a logistical mess. Some 20 minutes after the scheduled starting time, when the orchestra had still not arrived, a radio presenter came onstage with Chen. After discussing the inspiration for the work, Chen, who normally speaks in flowing paragraphs, began to hesitate. His face quickly turned red.

The festival’s director, Long Yu, then came out. He was clearly apologetic, though I could barely make out a word he said. The audience started to leave. On the way out I approached the composer Guo Wenjing, whose English is as halting as my Chinese; Guo explained, “Percussion, uh, no show.”

By 9 PM, the augmented percussion section had fully arrived, and, well after 10 PM, Iris finally received its China premiere. It remains among the most memorable symphonic performances I’ve heard in Asia.

And it made me think that I really had to ask Chen more about this piece, preferably when he wasn’t standing in front of 2,000 people.

Posted by Ken Smith

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