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The Yin and Yang of Modern Chinese Music


If contemporary Chinese composers share any traits, the most compelling one seems to be the ease with which they combine veneration for traditional forms with techniques gleaned from Western music. In the last few decades there has been an explosion of recordings, in which composers old and young effortlessly meld traditional Chinese elements with an international mélange of compositional techniques. This month, listeners will have the chance to explore some of this white-hot creativity when the Juilliard Orchestra presents two concerts as part of Carnegie Hall’s festival of Chinese culture, titled Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. Those seeking preconcert study have many options, and for eager explorers, several other recent recordings command attention.


One of the most recognized Chinese composers in the world, most recently for his contributions to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tan Dun will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra on October 26 in Alice Tully Hall in the premiere of his Violin Concerto, with Juilliard alum and faculty member Cho-Liang Lin as soloist, the highlight of an all-Tan program. Tan leaped into the international spotlight with his haunting music for Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Sony Classical SK 89347), and then again in 2002, for Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (Sony Classical SK 87726). In these scores and others, Tan combines ancient pentatonic scales with the lyricism of Puccini, tempered with the bite of modern percussion. A highwater mark came in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, when a commission from the conductor and Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling resulted in the spare, powerful Water Passion After Saint Matthew (Sony Classical S2K 89927) for chorus, four soloists, an enormous percussion contingent, and throughout, the sounds of dripping water from 17 hemispherical bowls. Engineer Friederman Trumpp recorded the entire project live in concert at Stuttgart’s Liederhalle. Visually minded listeners will want to investigate The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra (2002, on Deutsche Grammophon DVD DGG B000339009), premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The DVD features the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with cellist Anssi Karttunen, along with an array of video designers. The extravaganza straddles a serene lake in Fenghuang Cheng (“Phoenix Town”), a rural Chinese village in Hunan province so remote it lacks electricity.

Two nights later, in Carnegie Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas will direct the orchestra in Qigang Chen’s Piano Concerto (Er Huang), with Lang Lang as soloist. Those wanting to delve into Qigang’s output should look no further than Extase (Virgin Classics 0948 344693 2-6), with four strong and very different works. The title track uses a large orchestra with a sinuous part for oboe soloist. Imaginative passages ask for circular breathing (creating ultra-long notes) leading to a climax in the instrument’s upper register. San Xiao (Three Images of Laughter), for four traditional Chinese instruments, is given a sensational reading by the Hua Xia Ensemble, which recorded the piece the following year in an even more vivid studio version, along with striking works by Zhu Jian-er, Gao Wei-jie, Wang Xi-lin, and Guo Wen-jing (available on Hugo HRP 7174-2).

Yuan uses three orchestral groups plus a small string trio to launch a brooding, monolithic, hulking mass, shot through with bursts of color and detail. Spectral clouds morph into iridescent sunbursts; volcanic climaxes dissolve and scatter like sparks falling on the floor. And in a complete stylistic change, the composer’s L’Eloignement (2004) evokes Shostakovich, albeit with a traditional Chinese folk song at its core. Full of energy, this most recent work is utterly different from the others in its intense, agitated rhythms. It ends in a ghostly, transparent array of harmonics and high frequencies.

Two other composers—one who survived the Cultural Revolution and one born just as it ended—have recent works that portend good things for the 21st century. Ge Gan-Ru’s Fifth String Quartet, Fall of Baghdad (2007), pays homage to George Crumb’s groundbreaking 1970 Black Angels, for electric string quartet, and is the centerpiece of a stunning new CD by the ensemble ModernWorks, featuring three of Ge’s quartets (Naxos 8.570603). Directed by cellist Madeleine Shapiro, the group includes violinist Mayuki Fukuhara and Juilliard alums Veronica Salas, viola, and Ari Yoshioka, violin. Engineer Norbert Kraft, working in St. Anne’s Church in Toronto, has captured every glint of Ge’s biting dissonance, microtones, major and minor seconds brushing against each other, and other extended techniques that produce his anguished landscape.

Finally, Huang Ruo (b. 1976), who received both his M.M. and D.M.A. degrees from Juilliard, offers a new CD (Naxos 8.559653) featuring three of the five parts of his Drama Theater Cycle performed by Future in REverse (FIRE). Chinese and Western elements fuse as the performers sing, chant, speak, act, and play additional percussion instruments—in the case of Drama II: Shifting Shades (2008), 18 beer bottles. Drama III: Written on the Wind (2007) seems like a small vocal concerto, with the ecstatic soloist Min Xiao-Fen also playing the pipa, and Drama IV: To the Four Corners (2005) uses a Western quintet, spiked throughout by sharply imaginative use of cymbals and Chinese opera gongs.

The disc closes with Huang’s String Quartet No. 1: The Three Tenses, adapted in 2007 from a previous commission by the American Brass Quintet. Listening to the taut score, I couldn’t hold back a grin, since perhaps uncharacteristically for this composer, the musicians have “nothing else to do” but play their own instruments. The quartet of engineers, including the composer, has given him enviable results working in Juilliard’s own recording studio.

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