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CLASSICAL  January 2010

CLASSICAL January 2010

Subject:

Bright, Brighter

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 23 Jan 2010 20:32:52 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Bright Sheng

*  Spring Dreams for violin and orchestra of Chinese instruments (1999)
*  3 Fantasies (2006)
*  Tibetan Dance (2001)

Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Andre-Michel Schub (piano)
Erin Svaboda (clarinet)
Bright Sheng (piano)
Singapore Chinese Orchestra/Tsung Yeh
Naxos 8.570601   Total time: 48:00

Summary for the Busy Executive: Talent.  Bright Sheng is still somebody
to watch.

Bright Sheng, born in Shanghai, lived through the Cultural Revolution,
during which time he was assigned to collect folk tunes and to arrange
for folk ensembles.  Rather than crush his creativity, it seems to have
molded his artistic personality.  Somehow he got to the United States,
where he managed to study privately with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.
I first encountered his name through his handsome orchestration of
Bernstein's late masterpiece Arias and Barcarolles.  Lenny liked it,
too.  Since then, I've sought out his work, which has mostly disappointed
me.  I found the music I heard not quite as boring as Tan Dun's, but
that sets the bar too low.

I do seem to have a problem with Asian-Western crossover, although
not the other way around.  It seems to me that the spiritual aesthetic
of most Asian music (excepting things like raga, gamelan, and Okinawan
drumming) aims seeks to quiet the mind; that of Western music, to stimulate
the mind.  The goal of Buddhist meditation is nirvana, which holds out
the reward of shutting out the noise of an illusory, painful world.  On
the other hand, the primary image of Western spirituality resembles the
finale of Goethe's Faust, where the seeker after truth doesn't shut down,
but keeps seeking.  Even heaven requires effort.  Too much a product of
the West.  I don't want to turn off.  There's always more to find out.
I hesitated even to listen to this CD, but, thankfully, I did and found
that Sheng does write stimulating music.

In three movements ("Prelude," "Song," "Tibetan Dance"), Tibetan
Dance for violin, clarinet, and piano -- partakes of both aesthetics.
Its first two movements evoke the endless serenity of Chinese music, but
in a very Western way.  What distinguishes (and saves) Sheng from his
crossover compatriots is his love of counterpoint, which he ties to a
very Asian primacy of melody.  It makes sense that if melody attracts a
composer, he might be interested in how two or more melodies might sound
together.  The second movement sounds the most "authentically" Chinese.
A good deal of it consists of violin and clarinet in unison.  The piano
remains completely silent.  Eventually, however, the two strands diverge
in a kind of Coplandian meditation.  On the other hand, "Prelude" and
the actual "Tibetan Dance" owe much to Bartok's treatment of folk music.
The first movement would not have been out of place in Bartok's Contrasts
(particularly with a gentle percussive effect on the violin) while the
third reminds me strongly of Bartok's Hungarian rondos.

One can apply much of the above to the Three Fantasies for violin
and piano -- "Dream Song," "Tibetan Air," and "Kazakhstan Love Song" --
except that Sheng handles the Bartokisms with considerably more assurance
and freedom.  Indeed, one hears a personal voice with something interesting
to say.

However, the concerto Spring Dreams stands out in this program,
particularly in regard to the strength of Sheng's original voice. 
This piece has gone through three versions: one for orchestra alone
(1995), one for cello and Chinese orchestra commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma
(1997), and this one for violin and Chinese orchestra, commissioned by
Cho-Liang Lin (1999).  One can easily understand why two virtuosos wanted
to incorporate this into their repertory, the piece is that good.

The work is slightly misnamed, for it's not a purely Chinese orchestra.
Chinese instruments are pitched mainly in the treble.  Sheng reinforces
(and in some cases provides) lower sonorities with Western cellos and
basses, but with discretion.  It results in a richer, less shrill (to
my ears) sound.  Nevertheless, the sound of it -- if you're not used to
Chinese music -- will very likely bring you up short.  The score consists
of two movements, "Midnight Bells" (inspired by a classic Chinese poem)
and "Spring Opera" (inspired by the suicide scene in the classic Chinese
opera Farewell, My Concubine).  You don't need to know either one of
these for the work to move you.  The first movement resembles more closely
people's idea of Chinese music -- slow, pentatonic melodies dominant in
the texture.  A bunch of pentatonic themes runs the danger of the music
homogenizing, of a stultifying sameness, but Sheng skillfully avoids the
trap by focusing on different rhythms and simultaneously presenting his
themes in different, clashing keys.  The resulting acidity rescues this
movement from becoming a snapshot from a cruise ship or an exercise in
chinoiserie.  This movement says serious things about a culture.  I
sometimes wonder what went through the Singapore musicians' minds when
they first confronted the score, even though they probably know Western
classical music as well as anybody.  It's that fit between East and West
that's so unusual.

The finale burns down the barn, and it lies closer to Western music.
One can't even talk about melodies, the bedrock of Chinese music, since
much of the time the instruments don't play definite pitches.  Sheng
brilliantly turns the Chinese orchestra into a large percussion section
and even gets sounds that resemble electronically synthesized timbres.
What saves it from mere gimmickry is that the rhythms are so compelling
and sweep you along.  After the concerto ended, I shouted, "Wow!" thus
causing my wife to yelp at the surprise of it.

The musicians achieve excellence all around.  Yeh and the Singapore
Chinese Orchestra appealed to me the most, but violinist Lin reached a
perfect balance of Eastern and Western performing styles.  He has honed
in on Sheng's aesthetic.  Schub and Svaboda provide sensitive accompaniment,
and of course Sheng knows how his Tibetan Dance should go.  Fine sound.
An exciting release from the bargain label Naxos.

Steve Schwartz

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